Boot camp for social workers

Chong is a Times staff writer.

At the San Diego Armed Services YMCA, social workers who counsel military families can barely keep up with the requests that come pouring in.

About two years ago, each social worker dealt with about 16 cases at any given time, said Amanda Cross, senior program director of family outreach. Now, each of five social workers carries a caseload of 23.

“As of last year, we now have a wait list, and we’ve never had that before in over 20 years of operation,” Cross said.

With agencies such as Cross’ in mind, USC is launching a new program to train therapists who understand the difficulties of military families. Starting next fall, the School of Social Work will offer a military specialization within the two-year master’s program in social work.

“There’s been a lot of problems with post-traumatic stress disorder and other kinds of problems returning service members have, and, at the same time, there is a very limited supply of people educated and prepared to deal with these problems,” said Marilyn Flynn, the school’s dean.


The Army recently contracted with Fayetteville State University in North Carolina to create a social work master’s program at Ft. Sam Houston in Texas, but the USC program is the first military track based at a university, USC officials said.

“On average, mental health practitioners are 20 years behind clinical trials, so it is important to do this at a research institution,” she said.

Flynn came up with the idea about two years ago as she read about the growing mental health problems among returning veterans.

Roughly 30% of service members coming back from Iraq are expected to seek mental health care, and the suicide rate in the Army has grown to its highest rate since record-keeping began, USC officials said.

It is clear that the men and women returning from war -- and their families -- require care that reaches beyond what is normally taught in social work school, said Jose Coll, a social worker and former reconnaissance Marine who is chairing USC’s program.

“What we hear all the time is, ‘They didn’t understand me,’ ” he said.

Repeated deployments can shake up families in ways that civilian social workers have never studied, he said. Also, clients use military acronyms that bewilder civilians.

If a therapist doesn’t understand the jargon, “it becomes much harder to build a relationship between the client and the therapist,” Coll said. “Many times, the client never comes back.”

The USC program will inject military-related material into traditional social work classes, such as talking about self-image and the loss of a limb in a class on loss, grief and bereavement. But the program also plans to add brand-new classes that deal with PTSD and or explain military hierarchy.

Students will also do 600-hour internships at places such as the drop-in veterans centers or the jail at Camp Pendleton.

The program also plans to take advantage of the cutting-edge research at other parts of the university, such as the “virtual humans” developed at the Institute for Creative Technologies for training exercises.

Instead of relying on traditional role-playing exercises with other students, military social work students will be able to put on a headset and practice with “Sgt. Justina.”

Justina, a somber, fidgety, brown-haired girl, was developed to respond like a civilian teenager who has been sexually assaulted, said Albert “Skip” Rizzo, a clinical psychologist who is a research scientist at the institute.

Scientists at the institute are planning to dress Justina in military fatigues and adapt her to display a variety of military-related mental health problems.

“We’re going to target sexual assaults, PTSD and depression,” Rizzo said. Eventually, researchers hope to create a library of 50 to 100 characters for the social workers.

Cross, the YMCA official, said she can’t wait for USC to produce graduates who can jump right into the agency’s heavy caseload.

“We used to do a lot of on-the-spot crisis intervention, where they were out of food or they had parenting issues,” Cross said. “Now we’re seeing a lot of families dealing with anxiety, depression. There’s an increase of the actual clinical acuity of cases. . . . We have to look for more skilled clinicians.”