The human touch
Social Work students and alumni respond in record numbers to veterans’ needs through internships and careers
May 27, 2011
Social workers go where the need is, and their battlefield is large.
With military involvement today in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya there is no greater need than working with veterans and their numerous issues such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, visual impairment, chronic pain, substance abuse, disabilities, homelessness, finances and family challenges.
The School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin had a record number of students choosing a veteran placement this year and numerous alumni are working with the veteran population. Since 1996, the school has had placements or internships at veteran and active military facilities in several states.
Social Work alumna Paula Taylor, whose husband is a U.S. Army chaplain, wants to work with veterans.
So does recent social work graduate Jae Lee, who was in the U.S. Army for five years and served several months in Iraq.
So does Helena Harvie, who became close friends with several San Diego U.S. Navy families before coming to the university to work on her master’s degree in social work.
And so does Maria Lee, who believes the country didn’t provide enough support to veterans who returned from previous conflicts such as the Vietnam War.
They want to provide the “human touch or the heart” in health care for veterans.
“I saw everything — multiple deployments, reintegration issues, substance abuse and domestic violence — that these Navy families were going through,” said Harvie, who did fall and spring semester internships at the Veteran’s Administration (VA) hospital in Temple, Texas.
“Through them, I saw what it truly means to serve our country, and ever since I have wanted to dedicate my career to helping this population. Social work is the best way to help veterans and military personnel. We can be of help in every facet of their lives — physical and emotional needs and even end-of-life care.”
Harvie has one more year before she receives her master’s degree. She wants to work with veterans again for her final year field placement. The majority of veterans Harvie saw at the VA hospital in Temple were from the Vietnam and Korean wars.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is the largest employer of master’s level social workers in the country and one of the largest settings to train social work interns, said Kathy Armenta, clinical associate professor of social work and faculty field liaison.
“Because the U.S. is withdrawing a large number of military forces from Iraq, the country is seeing even more combat veterans returning from war and struggling with PTSD symptoms and substance abuse problems,” she said. “Social workers provide professional clinical services to veterans across all patient settings and ensure continuity of care. Veterans Affairs is doing very heavy recruiting and hiring of professional social workers.”
Social workers serve military personnel in and out of uniform and those participating in federal disaster relief and humanitarian missions, said Tanya Voss, clinical associate professor and assistant dean for field education.
The social work profession, Voss said, was founded on a unique set of values that have guided the practice for more than 100 years: social justice, dignity and worth of the person and importance of human relationships.
In addition to working with veterans, social work students work in many other arenas, including criminal and juvenile justice, schools, child protective services, hospitals, substance abuse, domestic violence prevention, homelessness and grief counseling, among others. The school recently established a placement at the Ramstein Medical Center in Germany, which serves active military.
Last year, 441 social work students at the university served more than 222,000 hours in the community at 350 agencies in eight countries and 11 states, including Texas.
“Through veteran internships, students are able to use the learning from their traditional classroom settings in a hands-on way that means so much to their education as well as to soldiers who have served our country,” said Voss. “It’s one thing to read or to listen to lectures about how to help soldiers deal with trauma, transition to life after the military or how to get what they need from complex systems.
“Actually sitting down across from veterans who are dealing with real world needs requires that students bring all of themselves, all of their learning, experience and abilities into practical focus for real world application.”
Dr. Catherine Clancy, social work training director at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston, believes students want to work with veterans because “this is their peer group. The soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan in many cases are their fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins and even spouses. With family members involved in the wars right now, it’s pretty close to them.”
Three university social work students worked at the VA in Houston this spring, and Clancy has had as many as seven university students in one semester.
Jae Lee completed an internship at an outpatient VA clinic in Austin and received his master’s degree in May. He wants to find a job working with veterans.
“After I got out of the service in 2003, I met a large number of combat veterans who were suffering from PTSD and alcohol abuse in the community where my military base was located,” he said. “Many veterans don’t feel comfortable talking about their combat experiences with people who don’t know about the military. I believe I will be a good fit to help my fellow combat veterans because I share a similar experience with them.”
Jae Lee said social workers can be referred to as the “human touch” because of their unique treatment approach of validating, normalizing and empowering the client.
“Rather than perceiving the client (or the patient in a hospital setting) as a sick person, social workers provide client-oriented interventions, respecting the person’s self-determination in pursuit of treatment,” he said. “Since all wellness plans established during psychosocial assessment are solely based on the client’s self-determination, I think the client gets an impression that he or she is the decision maker and expert on his or her own life.”
Taylor, who graduated from the School of Social Work in 2010 with a master’s degree, is on a one-year fellowship at the VA medical center in Waco, Texas. The Central Texas Veterans Health Care System employs 120 social workers who work in every medical area of the health care system, including emergency care, primary care, traumatic brain injury, PTSD, suicide prevention, women’s health issues, a spinal cord injury clinic and hospice care, Taylor said.
“Many of our social workers also are active in the community,” she said. “Just one example is the partnership with the Department of Housing and Urban Development where social workers are on the front lines of President Obama’s initiative to end homelessness among veterans within five years.”
Like Jae Lee, Taylor also believes social work practice is very “patient-centered.”
“It is rooted in the hopes and dreams of the patient. It is culturally sensitive, empowering, holistic, respectful and hope-instilling work,” said Taylor.
She was drawn to the social work profession by the work of medical social workers who have assisted her for the past 20 years in the care of her oldest son who has special needs.
“And, I am a military spouse. The job of a VA social worker is expansive, but it’s also rewarding. Because social workers understand the importance of human relationships and recognize the dignity and worth of people, we offer empathy, support and encouragement to those who are hurting. It’s my way of giving back,” said Taylor.
One reason Maria Lee, who also interned at the VA hospital in Temple, wants to work with veterans is to correct what she believes has been insufficient support of veterans in the past.
“I want to work with veterans to ensure that those who are serving our country are receiving the best care possible,” she said.
Many times, social workers who work in VA facilities work with a veteran’s family, said Lee, who co-facilitated a therapy group for spouses of veterans who have PTSD.
“Social workers are taught to listen with empathy and focus on the strengths of an individual,” she said. “This means that we seek to understand the person from their perspective. A medical professional listens to find the problem. A social worker listens to help the person find a solution.”