MADIGAN ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. – There are nearly 700,000 social workers employed in the United States. The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics has identified social work as one of the fastest-growing professions in the nation.
For a nation dealing with stressors from economic downturns to a global pandemic to world conflicts, social workers are ideally suited to help people overcome these challenges and do so every day at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
"In my 30 years as a social worker, I don't recall a time that I have seen society more stressed. Service Members must manage these societal stressors on top of the normal stressors associated with serving in the military. Focused on readiness, the social workers of JBLM are a critical piece in helping Service Members during these challenging times," said Lt. Col. James Macdonald, the chief of the Department of Behavioral Health at Madigan Army Medical Center on JBLM.
There are many different types of social workers with diverse backgrounds and varying areas of focus.
Social workers are found in interdisciplinary teams in schools, hospitals, mental health centers, nonprofits, corporations, local, state and federal government, and even private practice. They can provide direct behavioral healthcare, help connect people with resources, advocate for policy change, engage in research and policy development, and help communities organize to overcome challenges.
In March 1963, the National Association of Social Workers organized the first social work month as a way to celebrate the profession. This year, the theme is, "The Time is Right for Social Work."
The theme is timely because there is a growing need for behavioral healthcare in this country.
According to a 2018 report to Congress, clinically trained social workers help meet that need and are one of the most abundant professions providing behavioral healthcare. At Madigan and JBLM, social workers serve alongside psychologists, psychiatrists, licensed marriage and family therapists, and psychiatric nurse practitioners to provide quality interdisciplinary care to Service Members and their families.
Social workers providing behavioral healthcare are generally called clinical social workers. At a minimum, they have completed a master's degree in social work, two to three additional years of supervised clinical experience, and have passed a clinical exam to become licensed to independently provide behavioral healthcare.
Some social workers go on to complete their doctorates and continue serving in research or administrative roles. Other social workers choose not to pursue clinical work and often serve as prevention specialists for social problems such as family violence, suicide, and sexual assault and harassment. There are social workers in all of these roles on JBLM.
Many social workers work in outpatient care at an Embedded Behavioral Health Clinic, often referred to as an EBH, providing individual assessment and therapy as well as group therapy across the range of behavioral health conditions.
Other social workers work at the EBH providing specialty substance abuse clinical care. Finally, a few provide clinical care across the installation in very specialized clinics such as the in-patient psychiatric ward; the emergency room, the intensive outpatient clinics, the corrections facility, the Soldier Recovery Unit at the Family Advocacy Program, and at the Child and Family Behavioral Health Services clinic.
In addition to the variety of locations and services provided, social workers are drawn from various backgrounds and hold different roles in the organization.
A behavioral health officer is either a clinical social worker or psychologist who is responsible for behavioral healthcare and readiness for the brigade to which they are assigned. Typically working in teams of two, they are the primary advisors for commanders at all levels in the brigade on behavioral health-related matters.
They also serve as the liaison between the unit and the EBH clinic and split their time between the two. However, BHOs are ultimately unit assets and have the ability to deploy with their unit to meet the unit's behavioral health need in a deployment setting.
“Military social work is a truly unique area of practice. Serving as a BHO provides a unique opportunity to reduce factors that contribute to mental health stigma, increase leader mental health literacy, improve organizational ability to proactively manage risk within the formation, and foster a climate conducive to Soldier and family resilience. The position requires a diverse and culturally competent skill set which is a natural fit for social workers," said Maj. Ryan Black, a BHO with the 555th Engineer Brigade.
Civilian social work providers deliver the bulk of behavioral healthcare to Service Members on JBLM, providing continuity for their units and patients. An experienced civilian provider will have a sense of the behavioral health needs of the unit they serve and can be critical in working with the BHO in communicating with commands.
The bulk of the clinical social work providers' time is spent in direct patient care, with the remaining time spent engaging with commanders and BHOs, and advocating for their patients.
“Social work and behavioral health in the Army is a specialized field that is rewarding and challenging, balancing working for the Soldier, the unit, and the Army. One of the most rewarding aspects of being a civilian social worker within the Army system is working with active duty social workers in the Army, helping them navigate challenges while maintaining social work principles and practices,” noted Stacie Overbay, a 17/555 Embedded Behavioral Health civilian provider.
Social workers also serve in leadership roles across the installation.
In addition to being Madigan's chief of the Department of Behavioral Health, Macdonald is JBLM's installation director of Psychological Health, and the Behavioral Health Market lead for the Puget Sound Military Health System Market.
“Military social work officers and civilian social workers, many with broad experience both in and out of the military, serve the military in a number of capacities, from clinical to administrative to research. They serve in operational units, military hospitals, and agencies. They serve in leadership roles, including as chiefs of Behavioral Health and IDPHs,” Macdonald said.
With so many services provided, roles to fill, and ever-increasing need, there is truly no time like now for social work.
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