USC program trains social workers to help military veterans

By CAROL LAWRENCE | Ventura (Calif.) County Star | Published: November 8, 2013

As a military wife of 10 years, Sandra Troxell understands the complex inner world of the armed forces with its strict values and standards, high expectations and reluctance to trust civilians with problems.

Her insight makes the Camarillo resident just the type of person mental health agencies need as demand grows for social workers specially trained to understand the issues faced by military veterans.

Troxell is set to graduate in May with a master’s degree in social work from USC with a sub-concentration in military social work, allowing her to use her familiarity to help veterans and their families leave that private world and successfully rejoin the civilian one.

“There’s really a kind of influx in programs and service to help vets and families, and I really wanted to be a part of it,” Troxell said. “My husband was part of a Warrior Transition Unit (which helps soldiers transition to civilian life) and I saw a lot of need relating to families.”

The need is clearly there, but a shortage of mental health providers, particularly those experienced in the military culture, has existed for years, experts say. Providers are needed now more than ever as the United States brings soldiers home from overseas wars and other conflicts.

In a 2008 study, the Santa Monica-based RAND Corp. found that of the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, more than 18 percent of those coming home met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. The number is higher if you add traumatic brain injury, a common injury from the wars.

“However, gaps in access and quality remain,” the authors stated. Unresolved, the issues can lead to other psychological problems, suicide attempts and possibly homelessness.

Additionally, a 2007 report by a presidential-appointed task force within the American Psychological Association stressed that troops’ and their families’ mental health and well-being were little studied and little understood, and no “well-coordinated or well-disseminated approach to providing behavioral health care” to that population was found.

In response to the RAND study and others, the Department of Veterans Affairs began in mid-2012 an aggressive campaign to hire mental health clinical providers, including social workers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates employment of social workers to grow 25 percent through to 2020, faster than the 14 percent average for all occupations.


As part of USC’s program, Troxell is interning with Ventura’s Project Understanding in its Homeless to Home program, which helps move homeless clients into permanent housing.

About two-thirds of the homeless people the organization helps have a military background, said Jochen Maier, a board member who also sits on the executive committee. Troxell said they are typically from the Vietnam era.

So when the organization had difficulty reaching a particularly distrustful vet, Troxell was able to use her background and USC training to help the team gain trust.

“When he found out we had someone also familiar with the military who he could relate to, he let us in and let us connect him to the VA for benefits and helped us house him,” Troxell said. The client has been living in housing for two months now and is “doing well,” she said.

Maier called the military skill set “fantastic” and a “huge benefit” to the organization.

“It’s easier to make a connection,” Maier said. “There’s a closeness, a proximity.”

Social workers need to be “culturally competent” in the military to understand that it has its own language, values and standards just like ethnic cultures, said USC clinical associate professor Anthony Hassan, a retired Air Force officer with 25 years in military social work.

“Consider the population they (the social workers) are serving,” Hassan said. “Understand the lifestyle, the experiences, the issues of going to war, and what it brings. That’s what I’m asking therapists to understand.”


Thirty years ago, Paul Maiden, executive vice dean at USC and developer of the military social work sub-concentration, spent time in a VA outpatient clinic.

“We were not successful in responding to the veteran population back then,” Maiden said.

Recently, Maiden realized that while things had improved, there was still a lack of trained people.

“What we identified was a need that’s not being filled,” Maiden said. “It was a need in terms of the high number of warriors returning, and the level of trauma and injuries, and the much higher survival rate.”

He and his colleagues hired doctorate level social workers, an Army colonel psychologist and others within the military, and developed USC’s military social work program in 2008. The online program debuted in 2010 and is popular with military spouses because they must relocate often.

The program trains students in clinical social work methods for helping veterans, their spouses and children deal with post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression, among other issues, all which can lead to behavioral problems such as substance abuse, child abuse and suicide.

Students go through 550 hours of interning or in some cases get field experience through a virtual clinical experience that enables role-playing with a character that mimics mental health conditions.

The master’s program takes about two years, and full-time tuition is about $87,000.

Hassan said USC’s program graduated 14 students in its first year and grew to 460, with 400 more expected to graduate this year. A survey of 60 graduates found about 80 percent were employed within 90 days and 70 percent within 30 days, and most were working with veterans, he said.

Troxell says it’s a way of giving back while learning to talk to veterans, counsel them, and help them help themselves.

“It fills this need to a T,” she said.

For more information on the USC Military Social Work program visit http://msw.usc.edu/academic/sub-concentration/military-social-work/

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