How do social workers help veterans? This is a big, open-ended question with answers that may surprise you. Did you know that the Department of Veterans Affairs is one of the largest employers of social workers in America?
If you have ever called the VA, gotten treatment or evaluations at a VA clinic, or otherwise have used services offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, it’s likely that a social worker was involved, or can be made available for your needs depending on circumstances.
But social workers don’t just work for the VA; they open private practices, form non-profit organizations, work in civilian clinics or outreach, and even help Veteran Service Organizations such as the USO, VFW, DAV, etc.
In some cases, a Veterans Service Organization may have help, advice, or funding for programs that help train vets to become social workers-an April 2019 article published by the University of Minnesota lauded the DAV for providing a donation to the School of Social Work, which the school promptly turned into a scholarship that benefitted a veteran attending classes there and performing field work.
How Social Workers Help Veterans
You can’t simply decide to become a social worker and vets who need the services of social workers aren’t getting help from untrained, inexperienced newcomers.
There is a range of minimum required training and experience–the most entry level social worker is required to have an advanced degree to perform clinical work, and most states have a minimum required number of hours of experience in social work before state credentials are issued.
Social work takes place, as discussed above, within the VA system as well as outside it. Social workers within the VA healthcare system help veterans in a variety of ways. From the more well-known services including counseling, therapy, substance abuse counseling, and related areas, there are other ways veterans can get help from social workers at many stages in their journey through the VA health system:
- Information “linkage and referral”
- Discharge planning
- Homeless veteran outreach
- VA Case management
- Financial Assistance referral
- Housing and community living options
- Advance Directives
- Mental health issues
- Long term term planning
VA social work outreach also includes working with veterans and family members for readjustment counseling, coping with disability, those who need durable powers of attorney, end-of-life issues, and the financial aspects of all of the above.
Social Workers who want to help veterans in the private sector and not as a VA employee have a variety of options. One is to work with or volunteer for social work duties in a non-profit agency, Veterans Service Organization, or in private practice.
In more rural areas, you may find a social worker at a mental healthcare clinic, via a counselor or even as a referral from a primary care provider. In more urban areas there may be entire agencies dedicated to social work for veterans or including veterans as a primary part of their outreach programs.
Non-VA programs that feature social workers may also be involved in advocacy. Depending on the agency (a VSO versus a non-military-focused nonprofit) you may find that the company that pays your social worker also pays more money to lobby on your behalf for improvements in the law, enhancing availability of services to veterans, and awareness raising for programs that already exist. Lobbying and advocacy are important aspects for both vets and caregivers and resource managers. The role of a VSO or veteran-focused agency in this area should not be taken lightly. Why?
According to the National Association of Social Workers, “Elected officials take heed to mass numbers— When a group of people from an elected official’s district requests a meeting regarding a particular issue, the elected official wants to hear their point of view.” Lobbying is a time-honored way of getting the relevant issues in front of your elected officials at the local, state, and national level.
Finding a Social Worker
By the time you reach this point in the article, it may seem obvious that a great place to begin looking for a social worker to help you is none other than the Department of Veterans Affairs.
But if you wish to remain outside the VA system or don’t have access to it, there are some important places to start looking for a social worker. The usual VSO agencies are a great place to begin, but you should also look at your state-level Division of Veterans Affairs official site, state level Department of Veterans Affairs, etc.
Some will need the help of a professional to plan their healthcare, others may require assistance with payment plans or copay waivers; still others will need counseling, therapy, and other services within the VA.
Fortunately, these are also available outside the VA system. Any health-and-wellness websites feature “find a social worker” search tools, and you can search the Psychology Today site for mental health professionals who may do social work for veterans. You may also find a health-care-specific type of social worker at local hospitals and clinics. In general, the services offered by these professionals can include:
- Advocacy within the civilian health care system
- Identify barriers to medical care
- Risk assessment
- Evaluating needs after discharge
- Crisis intervention
- Supportive counseling
- Referrals to community resources
- Provide assessment and support to victims of abuse or neglect
- Assessing institutional abuse or neglect
One thing some veterans will notice in non-VA settings; there is often similar emphasis on the “whole healthcare team concept” of which social workers play a part. A good example of this is found within the University of Illinois at Chicago UI Health department–social workers and healthcare officials there urge current patients who need more information on social work to call the Health Social Work Office at 312.996.0293.
Government Agencies Providing Social Work Services Outside The VA
The Department of Veterans Affairs does not have a monopoly on providing social work services to veterans and family members. For example, did you know the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provides some military-specific resources as well as help with government benefit programs overall? HHS offers the following:
- Adoption services
- Home Visiting programs for pregnant women, expectant fathers, and parents and caregivers of children under five
- Home Energy Assistance for low-income households (includes financial assistance for home heating and cooling costs)
- HHS Programs for those with Disabilities
- Programs for Seniors
- Supporting Military Families
- Benefits.gov–the official benefits website of the U.S. government
You can find local branches by searching “social services near me” or by contacting the Department of Veterans Affairs at 1-800- 827-1000.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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