From 2002 to 2012, there were 1.6 million service people who left active duty and became eligible for veterans' health care. By the start of 2013, however, only 56 percent of all veterans sought treatment.
Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and higher rates of suicide mean that accessing treatment can be imperative for many of the service men and women reintegrating into civilian life. And reaching out to them to offer assistance is a responsibility that’s increasingly falling into the hands of those in the social work industry.
“Military culture, much like mainstream culture, is hardly pro–mental health care,” says former Military Intelligence Captain Robert Fields. However, taking advantage of that care can make a difference not only in the lives of former military personnel but in the communities they call home. “If you’re getting help with the things that you need, then you’re not going to be doing things that are potentially harmful to others.”
It’s a scenario the U.S. Army veteran has experienced personally. When he was discharged in 2005—after almost nine years of service that included stints in six countries, including Iraq—Fields struggled to find his place in the civilian world. But overcoming the social stigmas surrounding mental health care proved to be a life-changing event for him.
Through the Vet Center, an organization funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Fields was partnered with a social worker who not only helped him regain a sense of belonging and purpose but also inspired him to become a social worker himself.
Today the veteran is pursuing his master’s degree in social work from the University of Southern California, one of the few master's programs in the country with a sub-concentration in veteran care. The MSW@USC program is a top-ranked degree course delivered online through 2U, a platform that allows students to participate through face-to-face classes over the Web.
While he’s completing his studies online from his home in Prescott, Ariz., Fields has already had the benefit of putting his coursework into practice through his school’s community field placement. Working with United States Veterans Initiative, which provides transitional assistance to homeless vets, he’s discovered a new level of empathy with clients whose backgrounds are utterly different from his own—including those with significant drug abuse issues and felony arrest records.
“At first it was really intimidating,” Fields says. “But I really want these guys to do well. I want these guys to get back on the right track. And hopefully, I can play a little part in that.”
Despite the enthusiasm for his work, the Army vet is still learning to negotiate the resistance he sometimes encounters from clients who are doubtful they can benefit from therapy.
One elderly vet in particular was doubtful that a “student intern” could provide any real solutions to the difficulties he was having at home. But after a handful of sessions, Fields found his client's home life was dramatically improved. “It was just really rewarding to hear from him that these specific skills we talked about worked. I think he was surprised it worked so quickly...and maybe he was surprised it worked at all.”
Fields is on track to graduate in May. Initially he'll focus on providing individual and group therapy, but he hopes to move into a position that allows him to affect the policies surrounding veterans' health care, especially those that promote education and awareness.
“Focusing on outreach is so important,” he says. “People assume that everything’s out there because it’s on the Internet. But that’s making the assumption that people are looking. If you don’t know that you have a problem, you’re not going to be looking for a solution.”
This story was sponsored by 2U, which connects students with premier online educational experiences in partnership with leading universities.