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Human beings crave social interaction. Having a close network of family and friends often has significant benefits, as research shows that social relationships positively impact mental health, behavior, physical health, and mortality risk. However, people experiencing social isolation are at greater risk for many health issues, including heart disease, depression, and cognitive decline.

Social isolation can affect people of all ages and be caused by several factors, including but not limited to illness, violence or trauma, and/or unemployment. Social workers are uniquely positioned to address each of these, and can gain the skills necessary to have a positive effect on the lives of those experiencing social isolation through the online Bachelor of Social Work, Master of Social Work, and Doctorate of Social Work.

What Is Social Isolation?

In order to address the effects of social isolation, it’s crucial to understand what it is and how it impacts those experiencing it. An important distinction is that loneliness is not the same as social isolation. These two terms are not mutually exclusive, as social isolation and loneliness both denote a degree of social disconnection. However, loneliness is the feeling of being alone or separated — it’s possible to feel lonely while living with other people or even spending time with people. On the other hand, social isolation is a lack of social interaction or social contacts and having few people to have regular, meaningful interactions. According to the American Psychological Association, U.S. Census data shows that one-quarter of the population lives alone, which is the highest rate ever recorded.

The Causes of Social Isolation

Some of the most common causes of social isolation include:

  • Unemployment: Losing one’s job can be a traumatic experience in and of itself, but the ripple effect can result in many lingering effects, including social isolation. The bonds formed between co-workers are strong, and not having the day-to-day interaction afforded by many jobs can take a significant toll.
  • Physical limitations: Injury or disability can create isolation among people of any age. It can be challenging for those with physical limitations to interact, and the sense of isolation can grow.
  • Mental health challenges: Anxiety, depression, and other mental health struggles can limit social interaction.

The National Institute on Aging reports that older adults are often at the most significant risk for social isolation. In fact, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) found that approximately one-fourth of adults aged 65 or older are considered to be socially isolated. Age-related factors like the death of a loved one or spouse; worsening hearing, vision, or mobility; lack of access to transportation; and separation from friends or family members all increase this risk.

Those in rural communities may face an increased risk of social isolation. According to Dr. Amanda Brown, Clinical Faculty at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work, “In Kentucky, for instance, several counties have very limited access to internet resources. In an environment where virtual connection is necessary, there is trouble accessing healthcare and school resources.”

The Effects of Social Isolation

The impact of social isolation differs from feelings of loneliness. Some populations are at significant risk of social isolation and experience some of the most critically associated health issues. A considerable amount of research indicates that socially isolated adults can experience many physical ailments — underscoring the strong connection between mental and physical health. Some of the most significant health risks of social isolation include:

  • Increased risk of premature death: Social isolation is on par with obesity, smoking, lack of access to care, and physical inactivity, according to a 2019 study.
  • Higher risk of dementia: Analysis has found that social isolation increases the risk of dementia by 50%.
  • Depression: According to the American Psychological Association, feelings of social isolation can augment depression and anxiety.
  • Heart health: Research from the University of York suggests that the risk of heart attack rises by 29% among those experiencing social isolation.

Other populations are also considered vulnerable to social isolation. For example, feelings of social isolation can affect students who struggled to adjust to online and remote learning during pandemic-related quarantines and school closures or those who historically attended in-person or group treatment and find it difficult to transition to online therapy. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that immigrant, LGBTQIA+, and minority communities are often at heightened risk for social isolation. Specifically, the CDC points to language barriers, family dynamics, and systemic challenges in the community that can increase this risk — highlighting the need for additional interventions.

Dr. Brown echoed this concern: “Some of the biggest challenges associated with addressing the effects of social isolation are issues related to systemic and institutional challenges. Demographic and/or financial challenges tend to be some of the larger barriers for folks currently.”

How Do Social Workers Help People Experiencing Social Isolation?

The prevalence of isolation presents unique challenges to social workers. Understanding the cause of isolation is related to the solution. For example, feelings of social isolation can grow among students who struggle to adjust to online and remote learning. Dr. Brown pointed out, “While there are a number of strategies social workers may utilize to alleviate the impact of social isolation, they must begin with a holistic approach to assessment.”

Once social workers take a look at the causes of social isolation, they can take creative steps to reduce its effects. For example, someone who can no longer attend church service due to transportation or mobility challenges may have the ability to watch via an internet livestream, thus maintaining that thread of social connectivity. Dr. Brown stated, “It’s important to not blame clients for experiences of social isolation in any way, but rather to understand the context of the social isolation, and then figure out what to do from a micro, mezzo, and macro perspective.”

Of course, each case is different, but there are some key methodologies for helping people experiencing social isolation:

  • Evidence-Based Therapy Interventions, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): these help clients identify connections between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors associated with decreased social interaction.
  • Scheduled contact: Social workers can facilitate communication for an isolated person, whether a friend, family member, caregiver, or caseworker. Someone who can no longer attend church service due to transportation or mobility challenges may have the ability to watch via an internet livestream, thus maintaining that thread of social connectivity.
  • Cross-disciplinary collaboration: School-based social workers work closely with teachers to help the success of students. This structure can make it easier to access referrals for treatment and other behavioral health services. According to The Columbus Dispatch, the Columbus, Ohio school system partnered with Buckeye Ranch, a youth and family mental health counseling and treatment organization to meet the needs of children who have experienced mental health challenges. “My work is not just working with the students, I also talk to the teachers about my clients and I talk to their families too,” Olivia Price, who has a master’s degree in social work, told the Dispatch. “It’s kind of like a group of people working together to help the success of the child.
  • Support groups: Online or in-person support groups can be precious to those experiencing social isolation. They provide a social outlet and connect members with people experiencing similar issues.

Location plays a big role in strategies and interventions as well. Dr. Brown pointed out, “Urban areas are likely to have community mental health agencies, case management agencies, etc., whereas other locations may have no agencies in the county that provide such resources. Social workers learn how to utilize and collaborate amongst agencies across local communities, states, regions, and national resources, and understand how to build agency and resource access for their clients.”

How to Become a Social Worker

If you are drawn to helping underserved populations, addressing systemic issues, and making a difference in your community, pursuing a rewarding career in social work is the right path. Becoming a social worker requires a unique combination of empathy, critical thinking, and communication skills. The online Bachelor, Master and Doctorate of Social Work programs at the University of Kentucky will equip you with the skills necessary to launch your career. You’ll graduate ready to provide research-informed support to communities across the broad spectrum of society.

Students in these programs learn both micro and macro skills to address social isolation. In the program, you’ll learn clinical skills such as assessment, engagement, and intervention techniques to increase therapeutic rapport building with clients. This is a significant factor in successful client outcomes and is a vehicle for mitigating the impact of social isolation. You’ll also learn resiliency-building techniques, including interventions such as community support systems and other avenues of connection.

The 100% online programs will teach you to deliver quality care to individuals, groups, organizations, and communities. The rigorous curriculum is delivered in a positive and supportive learning environment, and students receive ample valuable, real-world experience, so they graduate ready to make an impact.

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In October 2021, 7.4 million people were unemployed in the United States. For many, specific barriers keep them from finding and holding a well-paying job. Social workers are uniquely positioned to help those who are unemployed overcome these barriers. They use a variety of resources and intervention strategies to guide and assist those who face roadblocks to finding employment. As we examine four of the major barriers to employment, we’ll cover how comprehensive social work approaches can help people become gainfully employed and better support themselves and their families.

The major barriers include:

  • Higher education
  • Childcare
  • Mental health
  • Addiction

Let’s examine each in more detail.

Higher Education

Education impacts the types of work people do for a living, job conditions, and the income they earn. Lack of access to higher education leads to disparities in employment. A substantial number of people, especially in low-income areas, do not have access to the resources needed to enroll in and complete a college program, which generally results in a significant reduction in their job prospects, salary potential, opportunities for advancement, job security, and benefits.

Even when these individuals are able to find work, they are often forced to take positions that provide low wages, low levels of control, and poor or undesirable working conditions, which can include exposure to toxins and other dangers.

Social workers aid clients in getting an affordable college education through intervention strategies designed to increase access and affordability such as helping them apply for loans, financial aid, and scholarships. They also help people put together all the puzzle pieces related to attending college, including the non-academic aspects.

  • Affordable housing
  • Transportation
  • Food
  • Education supplies
  • Childcare

Sometimes, it’s not just about physical needs and monetary barriers. Jennifer Weeber, an instructor in the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Kentucky, spent about two decades as a social worker employed by a private non-profit, where she held multiple positions, including case manager.

In addition to developing a support program that helped recipients meet many of the necessities listed above, she would take clients to local community or technical college campuses to tour and talk to professors when possible. “While these visits do not make college any more financially accessible, they are a way to make it more psychologically accessible by allowing people to feel more comfortable in an environment with which they are not familiar and which may be beyond what they had ever envisioned for themselves,” she explains.

Once learners are enrolled and taking courses, social workers can still play a role in making sure they earn their degrees. At many colleges, social workers are accessible to students through their schools, providing mental health support that helps them succeed all the way through graduation. These professionals offer psychotherapy, advocacy, facilitation, and mediation for learners, and can also direct them to community resources for further assistance.

Throughout higher education, students may rely heavily on social workers for the empowerment and assistance they need to balance coursework with stressors, challenges, and hardships in their personal lives. This ensures that more people receive the education they need to land a good job and make a steady living for themselves and their families.

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Childcare

Sending their kids to daycare or hiring a babysitter is cost-prohibitive for many parents, which can make it difficult or even impossible for them to work. In recent years, the relationship between childcare and stable work has been emphasized. According to a study by the National Women’s Law Center, over the first 10 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 2.3 million women left the labor force, many due to the lack of reliable childcare during that time. For some parents, finding affordable and reliable childcare was a barrier to holding a job long before the pandemic.

Social workers aid parents in finding and registering for affordable childcare options. Many social workers go a step further, ensuring that programs are located close to the family’s home or parents’ workplaces and that they have open spaces available and proper certifications or licensure. They explore total cost, hours of operation, available activities, and curricula, while keeping each child’s age and personality in mind. To help make life easier, social workers also work to make sure a care center is close to a family’s home or parents’ workplaces.

Government Resources for Accessible Childcare

In the Office of Child Care (OCC), a social services organization within the US federal government, social workers aid low-income working families by providing them with better access to affordable, high-quality before- and after-school daycare programs, as well as full-day plans for pre-school children. Kids are eligible for this assistance from birth through age 12. Parents can choose their preferred providers from a list of participants and may receive education to help them make this decision as well.

The OCC administers the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF), a grant awarded to state, territory, and tribal governments, which helps families pay for childcare that meets their needs and prepares their children for academic success. By creating policies and supervising their implementation, offering guidance to governments, and supporting training and education for childcare workers, the CCDF also enhances the caliber of care to ensure healthy child development. Social workers’ role in this vital part of stable employment helps individuals, families and society.

Mental Health

Some clients of social workers experience untreated or even undiagnosed mental health issues. These problems can make it difficult or impossible to find gainful employment, which perpetuates a dangerous cycle, because unemployment itself also has negative mental health consequences. Some people who are out of work report that they experience anxiety, worry, depression, low self-esteem and demoralization.

Mental health issues can have harmful physical effects as well. Continuous stress leads to conditions such as:

  • Arthritis
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Strokes and heart attacks

One of the ways in which social workers help in the area of mental health is through advocacy for clients. Issues in treatment often reflect disparities. Advocacy requires that social workers are able to bring a justice lens to client needs and recognize systemic barriers that are present, including stigma, lack of access to health providers and medications, and ability to comply with treatment recommendations. Advocacy entails fighting for the clients’ rights and articulating needs with various entities, including with the client and on behalf of the client with families, communities, and the agencies designed to meet client needs.

Other social work intervention strategies include counseling for individuals and families dealing with issues such as depression, stress, anxiety, anger, or grief. Through these forms of treatment, social workers who are also trained in psychology help patients heal by changing certain behaviors, thoughts, emotions, and perceptions to reduce or end their pain and develop a better understanding of themselves, other people, and different situations.

Therapy and Other Treatments

Sometimes, social workers will refer clients to other mental health professionals — such as psychologists, or psychiatrists — for treatment, depending on the specific issues the client is dealing with and the degree and nature of the social workers’ education and experience in mental health. The social workers or other professionals often coordinate with doctors to come up with treatment plans that involve both therapy and medication.

Outside of ensuring that clients get the proper mental healthcare, social workers also help their clients develop effective self-care plans — which may include mindful meditation, walks in nature, reading, and healthy ways to respond to or avoid harmful emotional triggers — enabling the clients to better deal with and reduce negative feelings and burnout. No longer overburdened with mental suffering, these individuals then have the capacity and motivation to end their unemployment by seeking, securing, and maintaining lucrative jobs.

Many social workers also work to reduce the negative connotations around getting help for mental health issues. University of Kentucky instructor Weeber notes, “Social workers also have a role to play in the broader community to reduce the stigma around mental illness and to develop effective services to address it. I’ve been involved with our local NAMI organization in planning events and other activities that raise awareness of mental illness in our community and create support. We held a training for our local police force on mental illness, with the goal of helping them obtain the skills and techniques they needed to de-escalate situations and provide sick people with access to services, instead of just using force to address a problem.”

Addiction

Another issue that is both mental and physical is addiction, a condition that commonly manifests itself in substance dependency or abuse. Further complicating matters is the fact that approximately 50% of people who have substance use disorders are also battling serious mental illness.

Social workers frequently work with individuals and families suffering from addiction, helping these clients get needed treatment at medical clinics, hospitals, and residential live-in care settings. Treatment can include detoxification, rehabilitation, and therapy or counseling, and can range in duration from a few weeks to a year or more. Additionally, there are social workers who work onsite at treatment facilities to care for clients and patients during their stays.

Outside of the hospital and facility environments, social workers also assist clients by getting them into therapy and counseling sessions with mental health professionals, either in an office or remotely via telehealth services. Some social workers provide therapy or counseling to patients themselves.

The work to get clients the required treatment involves staying up to date on available medications and other remedies, their costs, accessible payment assistance options, and the requirements for particular programs and then assembling the right mix to meet the needs of each person. It also frequently entails providing transportation to the treatment and offering outside support while the client is being healed. It may include helping the person to make arrangements for their children, housing, and other responsibilities while they are in treatment and helping them rebuild their life when they’re finished, as well.

Community Involvement and Prevention

Additionally, at the group, community, and society levels, social workers’ approaches include developing programs that educate poor communities about how to prevent or reduce substance abuse and treat people struggling with this disorder. When it comes to the former, in a lot of cases, social workers are the educators, leading seminars in which they offer information, guidance, support, and techniques to residents.

“I have come to believe that, if our communities are healthy, our people are more likely to be healthy,” Weeber explains. “If they have access to housing, food, health care (both physical and mental), education, and healthy relationships, and if we provide effective and timely services for them when they experience trauma — while also removing the stigma associated with this — then more people will be well and less likely to have to self-medicate in order to function.”

By enabling their clients to reach this state of greater mental and physical wellness through the aforementioned intervention strategies, social workers give these individuals the power to climb out of unemployment and achieve professional success.

Be a Part of the Solution to Unemployment

The work that social workers do extends to all parts of our society and can assist in dismantling the barriers that lead to unemployment. For prospective students who are passionate about service and wish to start a career in a growing field, the University of Kentucky College of Social Work offers the online Bachelor of Social Work, Master of Social Work and Doctorate of Social Work. All programs feature curricula taught by experienced instructors, many of whom are licensed professionals.

Designed for ultimate flexibility, the online BSW, MSW and DSW allow learners to study on their own schedules while still giving them the ability to interact with their professors and classmates. For the MSW, students can choose to pursue a clinical social work certificate, a substance use disorder certificate, or an individual plan of study.

Graduates are ready and exceptionally prepared to provide research-informed support at any scale—from serving individuals directly to coordinating organizational practice. Students also explore macro-level social work and drive positive change in social policy.

To learn more, please fill out the form located here or call 1-833-358-1721.

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Social workers devote their careers and lives to helping people in need. Their tireless assistance and seemingly boundless empathy are critical and often life-changing for their clients, but this devotion comes at a cost. Protracted exposure to the trauma of others can cause social workers to suffer from compassion fatigue, putting them at risk for physiological, psychological, and emotional stress.

Named by historian Carla Joinson in the early 1990s, compassion fatigue was further defined and researched by psychologist Charles Figley, whose work has contributed greatly to mental health professionals’ understanding of the disorder, how to treat it, and how to prevent it in the first place.

What is compassion fatigue?

Alternatively called secondary trauma, secondary traumatic stress (STS), or vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue is an overwhelming mental and physical exhaustion brought on by feeling the pain, stress, and other emotions of the people they are helping. The more empathetic and open they are to the suffering of others, the more likely they are to feel that suffering themselves.

Compassion fatigue in social work can be caused by exposure to a single case of trauma or from residual emotion that builds over years. It can be especially profound if it’s caused by counter-transference, which occurs when a professional interaction with a client triggers a personal emotional response from the practitioner, due to a mutual experience. Some of these factors that contribute to compassion fatigue in social work are exacerbated by local, national, and global events and issues, such as public health crises, economic disparities, and civil unrest.

Compassion fatigue is often characterized by a rather fast onset and acute symptoms that mirror those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The syndrome can result in social workers feeling numb to the pain of others, and can also make them wary of providing further care or even lead them to psychologically detach from clients as a defense mechanism.

But by learning and adopting regular self-care practices as part of their routines each day, social workers can address compassion fatigue before it sets in, allowing them to reduce or eliminate it altogether, thus transforming their lives in a way that allows them to provide even better care for their clients.

Prevention and Treatment

Developing a solid, holistic self-care regimen and carving out a daily or weekly schedule in which to complete that routine can work wonders for those in the helping professions. Habits, behaviors, and techniques have proven useful in preventing or assuaging compassion fatigue and burnout, including:

  • engaging in regular exercise
  • maintaining a nutritious diet
  • getting increased rest and sleep
  • taking time off from work — and refraining from checking work calls or messages during these periods
  • undergoing therapy with a mental health professional
  • joining a support group
  • setting emotional boundaries
  • practicing mindfulness and/or meditation
  • doing yoga
  • spending time with loved ones
  • relaxing outside in nature
  • engaging in interests or hobbies outside of work

Resilience training: This practice has also been shown to stop secondary traumatic stress and burnout from happening, or to mitigate the symptoms when these conditions occur. It involves educating social workers about STS, burnout, and the associated risk factors, as well as teaching them to use relaxation techniques and construct support networks that will help them cope with the difficulties of their jobs and any symptoms they experience.

Cognitive reappraisal: Along the same lines of emotional regulation, this technique is also useful in preventing or ameliorating compassion fatigue. Cognitive reappraisal entails reframing the way social workers perceive and react to the suffering of others, allowing them to think critically about their clients’ pain — and even imagine the emotional experiences of those people — without actually feeling the pain themselves. Cognitive reappraisal stops the social workers’ own minds from triggering their bodies’ stress responses.

Self-compassion: It’s important for social workers to practice self-compassion, defined by psychologist Kristin Neff as personal acceptance independent of success or failure. When social workers’ desire to help others is greater than their capacity, this can set up a negative mental cycle of self-blame when they’re inevitably unable to fully achieve their objectives. With self-compassion, they are trained to mindfully accept that they cannot do everything and that is ok — the help they are able to provide is still significant, and they need to take care of themselves, too.

Stimulus control and counterconditioning: Licensed clinical social worker SaraKay Smullens, who has dealt with compassion fatigue and burnout herself, recommends employing these two strategies that go hand in hand. Stimulus control involves making various choices to create a healthy work environment for oneself, such as eating lunch away from one’s desk as often as possible, socially interacting with coworkers, selecting a comfortable chair, listening to calming music, and bringing plants into your workspace.

Counterconditioning refers to behaviors one can engage in either right before work, after work, or during lunch breaks to develop a more positive association with one’s job. These include physical activities like yoga and workouts at the gym; entertaining diversions, e.g., books, movies, TV shows, and theatrical plays; and methods of healing, such as meditation and prayer.

Therapy: Almost 90% of mental health workers seek therapy for themselves with a professional before, during, and after undergoing their own career training, and over 90% of those who do so report high levels of satisfaction and personal growth as a result of their experiences.

Diversifying the work: Changing things up from the normal work routine can be beneficial in reducing secondary trauma and burnout as well. One method that Smullens found helpful was combining marital therapy and group therapy in an unconventional way, placing couples with complex problems into separate groups where each would find another person who reminded them of their spouse.

Another change Smullens made was beginning work as a clinical consultant for a theater company. She met with directors and actors to talk about the lives of some of her real clients that paralleled characters’ lives and events in the plays, while keeping the clients’ names and other personally identifiable details private, of course. It was a way for her to use her experience and expertise to help the theatrical professionals create better productions and give herself a break from her typical daily grind, which helped her stay mentally well.

Employer support: From an organizational standpoint, employers and supervisors need to do their part to reduce the incidence and severity of compassion fatigue and burnout among their staff. A study of 306 social workers published in the journal Occupational Medicine in March 2020 found that compassion fatigue was linked to increased absences from work due to sickness, higher rates of staff turnover, lower morale, and impaired judgment.

Employers and managers must ensure that their social workers are given sufficient time and support to engage in self-care practices regularly. They should also increase social workers’ salaries to a level commensurate with the volume and nature of the work performed. And they must monitor and reduce caseload sizes as needed to make sure they’re manageable, which often means hiring more people to decrease the burden on current staff. As reported by Quinn, Ji, and Nackerud in their cross-sectional study in the Journal of Social Work, positive supervisory ratings, increased compensation, and lighter workloads all correlated to lower degrees of compassion fatigue in social work.

Education: For helping professionals, warding off or alleviating compassion fatigue and burnout can and should begin with proper, high-quality education in self-care before they even graduate and enter the workforce. Fortunately, there are college social work programs that teach students healthy practices for taking care of themselves both mentally and physically, in order to safeguard against the deleterious effects of these ailments. Many of these courses of study are taught by professors who are also seasoned, knowledgeable social workers with firsthand experience in dealing with and overcoming secondary trauma and burnout.

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Your Future in Social Work

For those who are passionate about service and interested in embarking on a career in a growing field, the University of Kentucky College of Social Work offers the online Bachelor of Arts in Social Work, Master of Social Work and Doctorate of Social Work. All programs feature curricula taught by experienced instructors, many of whom are licensed professionals.

Designed for ultimate flexibility, the online BSW, MSW and DSW allow learners to study on their own schedules and readily interact with their professors and classmates. MSW students can choose to pursue certificates in clinical social work, substance use disorder, or child welfare, among others. Students may also choose an individualized plan of study.

The University of Kentucky College of Social Work is also home to the Self-Care Lab, the first known entity to do empirical international work around self-care and helping professionals, which gives students limitless opportunities for research.

To learn more, please fill out the form located here or call 1-833-358-1721.

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By Dr. Chris Flaherty, US Air Force Major, and Clinical Social Work Officer

Joining the Service

I enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1985 and wasn’t necessarily tracking toward behavioral health at the time; psychology and sociology were always interests of mine, though. In the military, you don’t always get the job you want, but you can ask for it, at least. So I was going through the extensive catalog of all potential positions when I came across a description of a mental health technician.

The job was an assistant to social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists and, in that setting, was a paraprofessional. I said, “That sounds fun.” So, after basic training in San Antonio, I returned to Fort Sam Houston, Texas. I completed four months of behavioral health technician training, and then I was off to work at the hospital at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.

The appearance of the US Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

First Military Job

For my first seven years, I worked as a technician, serving alongside military social work officers, psychologists, psychiatrists, other technicians, and drug and alcohol specialists. This meant I got a sampling of what was involved in those professions. Along the way, I decided to pursue a Bachelor of Social Work degree, and the Air Force sent me to school at the University of Southern Colorado (now named Colorado State, Pueblo).

Undergraduate and Graduate Social Work Studies

The more I learned about social work, the more I saw it as a good fit for myself. I loved the emphasis on not just helping individuals adapt to their environments but also improving climates to make them more conducive to promoting mental health by developing supportive policies, practices, and systems.

My level of interest kept growing as I learned more about it. So, after completing my BSW program and graduating in 1990, I earned my Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from the University of Denver, which I received in 1992. And while I was on active duty, I then applied for a commission as a social work officer and was accepted; that was my path from enlisting to landing my first social work job.

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Serving as a Military Social Work Officer

It was the early ’90s when I became an officer, and the system was a little different than it is now. I was green, fresh out of my MSW program, and I was sent to oversee a family violence program for an entire base in a very remote part of the US, with several staff under my supervision.

There were numerous social issues there, including a lot of family violence and alcohol abuse. It was also a place where gambling was legal, so many troops were getting into financial trouble. The Air Force sent me there as a new lieutenant and said, “Here’s your staff, and here are a handful of abuse cases that have come in this morning.” So, I’d say it was a “deep-end” experience.

There was a significant amount that I had to learn the hard way; it was a tough, exceedingly stressful job with lots of long hours. Fortunately, I had outstanding team members and great, supportive supervisors who got me through it.

What helped me immensely was my seven years of experience as a mental health technician working in a similar setting, though the Air Force Academy was mellow compared to this base. But, at least I knew the ropes, terminology, military behavioral health, and its roles and functions.

I became the family advocacy officer, which meant that the buck stopped with me for all domestic violence and child maltreatment on the base. I had assisted military social workers who were family advocacy officers when I was a medical technician. Hence, acculturation in my enlisted time made the transition much easier than it would have been, having just been recruited from civilian life.

The combination of that experience and my time as an advocacy officer on that base also served me well when I enrolled in the doctorate program at the University of Tennessee. I earned my Ph.D. there in 2001 while still serving in the Air Force.

Life in the Armed Forces

One of the common challenges in military life is that you can’t put down roots too deeply. Don’t unpack all of your bags because you’re going to move again. And that’s what I tell our students who are considering military careers. If you want to live by grandma and grandpa and aunts and uncles for the rest of your life, don’t go into the military — they’re not going to let you do that. But if you have an adventurous spirit and like to see new places and don’t mind moving every few years, it can be exciting and fun; it will provide you with unique opportunities and experiences.

That’s just part of life in the armed forces, whether you’re a military social worker or operating in any other role. That disruption can impose significant challenges on family members, especially children who must change schools every few years, say goodbye to their friends, and start over. And my experience was before social media, too, so I saw my daughter say goodbye to her friends, and they’d try to stay in touch with letters; back then, long-distance phone calls cost money, so you could only do so much.

I never went overseas, though I have many colleagues and friends who traveled to Germany and Japan to experience different cultures. That was enriching for their children in some ways, but it was a big challenge.

In the military, for most jobs, there’s a defined workday called the duty day, but that’s just a suggestion; the day ends when the work is done. So, depending on where a person is, they could have some long hours and maybe a lot of on-call work. Other assignments, though, are cushier: After leaving that high-stress base, I went to a warm, sunny place on the beach, where the workday was never more than eight hours, and I was never on call. So, there can be a lot of variation depending on where you end up. Usually, people assigned overseas tend to work harder — they often have more extended hours because some places don’t have enough staff to do everything that needs to be done well.

The Brotherhood of the Military

One of the things I miss and appreciate about the military is the camaraderie, which was unlike that of other places of work. There’s a certain amount of teamwork in other settings. Still, it’s different in the military in that it’s not just the behavioral health team — it’s the whole unit, the full group, the entire installation pulling together.

We went through significant wartime readiness assessments, for example, during which we had to simulate war games so that we could be evaluated on our skills. Everybody worked hard and put in long hours and then when we succeeded and passed, everybody celebrated together. There was that all-around dedication to the mission as one team. I would tell myself, “Okay, this is hard and stressful, but we’re all in it together.”

Learning How to Juggle Competing Loyalties

In the military, in some ways, you’re serving two masters: You’re working for the system, for the command, but then you’re also working for your client. So, a lot of negotiation happens — even mental negotiation with yourself in certain circumstances, as you think, “How do I balance serving the interest of my client and also serving the needs of the mission?”

Especially outside of the medical system, teams are constantly told that the mission comes first, and that’s true. But say, for instance, you have a troop with some mental health issues. Maybe they’re not fit for the duties they’re assigned at the moment, but they have the potential to resolve some of these problems and function well again. You have to determine how hard and for how long you should try to save and rehabilitate these persons, and when you should decide that they’re a liability to the mission, may put others at risk, and thus can’t serve in that role anymore.

So, sometimes it’s a fine line in terms of how much you advocate for your client and how much you focus on the needs of the mission and the well-being of the overall group, rather than just one individual. So, it’s always kind of a dance. And in some instances, it’s clear that a person shouldn’t have been brought into the military in the first place, and you find a way to help them exit as smoothly as possible. But other times, you have to get into a little tug-of-war with the command to advocate for your clients and say, “I think this person can recover and return to functioning. They need this kind of chance and this kind of help.”

The Benefit of Conferring with Your Comrades

I also learned much about the importance of consultation with peers — not just fellow military social workers but other behavioral health officers. It was beneficial to sit down and say, “Here’s how I’m seeing this case, but I’m torn between these two sides of the coin,” and talk that through with experienced folks who have been there and done that for a long time.

Getting different perspectives can help clarify your decision-making and make you feel less isolated in that process. And that’s the medical model of the case management teams: maybe you don’t know what to do, but if you talk it through with enough trusted, experienced folks, they can help you make the best decision.

Passing on What You’ve Learned

Throughout my career, I have been passionate about my work, and it’s been gratifying to see its positive impact on active-duty service members, veterans, and their families. The military gave me a lot, so I want to keep giving back as much as possible, which is why I was inspired to go into academia after retiring from the Air Force. I see what our troops endure, especially our young folks in combat zones, so I want to do all I can to improve their experience and wellness and help them thrive.

As an associate professor and director of the Military Behavioral Health Research Lab at the UK College of Social Work, I can use my experience to guide students in becoming military social workers. I also have the privilege of collaborating directly with the Army through our partnership to ensure our students are fully prepared with the knowledge and skills they need to serve our brave men and women in uniform. It’s the perfect second act of my career.

For more on UK’s military social work program and partnership with the US Army, read this detailed Q&A with Dr. Flaherty.

Explore the University of Kentucky’s Online BSW, MSW, DSW, Support for Military, or their Military Behavioral Health Lab. In addition, the UK College of Social Work offers great educational tracks for military and veteran social workers and civilians who want to help service members.

To get in touch with an admissions counselor about UK’s military social work programs, fill out this form or call 1-833-358-1721.

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When most people think of social work, they don’t associate it with the armed forces. Not many social work students know much about this branch of the field unless they have been personally impacted by military social work.

This is beginning to change as Dr. Chris Flaherty and his colleagues at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work are teaching and expanding research and outreach within their military behavioral health programming.

In this interview, Dr. Flaherty, who serves as both Director of the Military Behavioral Health Research Laboratory and an Associate Professor at the college, discusses the nature of military social work, the UK program, and his own 20-year career as a commissioned Air Force officer in the field.

What exactly is military social work? What’s the nature of the job?

The Role of Social Work in the Armed Forces

The US military healthcare system parallels its civilian counterpart: its installations have hospitals with physicians, nurses, and everything that you would find in civilian settings. The hospitals vary in size from major medical centers, like the one we work with in San Antonio, to smaller hospitals on more remote bases.

For decades, social work has played a major role in the military within the behavioral healthcare system. Professionals fill roles both as uniformed social work officers across the different branches and as civilians, a.k.a. civil service members, working on military installations and in the hospitals.

A typical behavioral health clinic or operation in the military will have a combination of social workers, psychologists, and maybe psychiatrists, depending on the size of the base or installation, as well as psychiatric nurses and mental health technicians.

Military social work is, by and large, clinical, especially among the commissioned officers. Military social workers are expected to pursue licensure at the advanced level, even though many may eventually end up in administration, away from direct clinical practice. And the military helps their folks earn that license through a number of ways.

The Various Areas of Military Social Work

People may think military social work must be generic, but it’s not; practitioners in the service have all of the same varied roles that social workers on the civilian health side have. Even though all of my practice experience was in the US Air Force, I’ve worked in adult mental health, child protection, and domestic violence programming. I worked in forensic social work in a military prison. I served in the education and healthcare fields, working with family medicine residents and teaching behavioral healthcare. So, even though it’s all military per se, there’s a lot of breadth to it.

And then, many social workers move up into administration, where they’re overseeing not just social work but larger behavioral healthcare operations. I’ve even known one case where a military social work officer was a commander of a field hospital. The profession has a major role in military healthcare, and I don’t think that’s going to change; if anything, it will continue to grow in the future, because the military healthcare system has been seeing the value in having social work officers, who have helped a great many service members and their families.

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I understand the UK College of Social Work’s military behavioral health lab has been active for about a year and a half. Would you tell us more about that and talk about how students have been engaging with the lab?

The lab is still in the nascent stage, where we have a lot of startup projects in the wings. I’m working with one of our Army faculty members on a textbook chapter about education of military social workers and the value of civilian and military partnerships; and we will offer to bring students in on that project, giving them a chance to learn more about military social work and contribute.

We’re working through some data-share arrangements with the military, including one with a major Army installation, which we’re very close to finalizing. There are quite a few bureaucratic hoops to go through, but we have various pieces in progress. In this arrangement, we will be analyzing the Army’s ongoing, large-scale behavioral health survey data that they collect on a quarterly basis. The UK CoSW will assist them in doing sophisticated analysis of these data to identify trends and factors that predict and impact positive or negative behavioral health outcomes for the troops, and how interventions may be tailored based on the data.

Throughout the process, we will be collaborating with the Army’s behavioral health officers and asking, “How can we improve this? How can we roll our findings into policy and practice to improve behavioral health and services for our troops?”

We’re working on another project to support student veteran success in transitioning from the military to college. This will provide an opportunity for some student participation as well. We’re still in the early stages as far as getting students connected, but we have a lot of things in the wings that are going to be very productive and interesting avenues for them.

I was interested to learn that you have the only program in the United States that specifically trains officers to become military social workers, under a contract with the US Army. Would you give us an overview of that program and how that’s been working out so far?

One of the gems in our military behavioral health programming is our contract with the Army, and it opens possibilities for a lot of other collaborations and partnerships along the way. I see it as the linchpin and the core of what we’re doing with military behavioral health. We secured it through a competitive bid process in which we were up against other major research universities, winning the contract in the fall of 2016.

Overview of the Army MSW Partnership

The partnership between the University of Kentucky College of Social Work and the US Department of Defense is run by the Army, but it is a program for military social work trainees from across the service branches. So, we have Navy and Air Force members as well, and we’ve had at least one Coast Guard person. We also have some folks who are going into government civil service to work with the military as civilians.

We at the UK CoSW provide our accredited curriculum to the Army, and they provide us with funding as well as additional faculty and staff at our site at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. They also work with us to tweak and modify our curriculum to make it more military-specific in certain areas, so that’s it even more relevant for their students. And these changes inform all of our military-related instruction and coursework, including classes and projects for our regular MSW students outside of the Army program — ensuring that all of our learners benefit by becoming better educated and prepared to help service members and their families.

That was the impetus for the military to seek such a contractual relationship with a university because it fulfilled one of their biggest needs: the ability to recruit and retain social work officers who understood military culture, were educated in and agreeable to practicing within that system, and had a deep knowledge of the unique challenges faced by service members. There is a lot of turnover in the military, and this was a way to solve that problem. It also allowed the Army to benefit from all the resources and clout of a nationally accredited civilian university, while being able to collaborate with our faculty on research to advance military social work.

This partnership is unique: UK doesn’t have anything quite like it, and there aren’t any other universities that have anything exactly like it. Our relationship is very interactive all the way through, especially since the military is using the same curriculum that we use, by and large.

The Details

The Army’s faculty are appointed through a regular appointment process to the University of Kentucky, even though most of them are uniformed social work officers with a few civil service civilians. They deliver our content to students with those aforementioned modifications to make it more militarily relevant.

They enroll a cohort every 14 months, approximately 25 new students each time; and because there’s some overlap, at any given time, there are approximately 50 students matriculating at our Army site in Fort Sam Houston. The military faculty can fast-track students, providing our two-year curriculum in just 14 months, because there’s no summer break — the military doesn’t work on a nine-month schedule.

There are also some modifications to how they arrange the field education part. They do it in concentrated blocks rather than incorporating it into other courses: their students do coursework and then discrete field placement, followed by more coursework and another placement. So, there are some changes structurally, but the content, learning objectives, and student outcomes are all the same for their learners as they are for ours, and their students have to pass the same comprehensive examination before graduation.

Progress

To date, we’ve matriculated about 100 social work officers through our program. The previous Army director, a colonel, told us that we at the UK College of Social Work are assessing, i.e., bringing into the military, 75% of the Army’s new social work officers.

This partnership has been a major undertaking that has required a lot of cooperation, trust, flexibility, and patience on both sides. And, inevitably, there were a lot of challenges in getting the two systems connected, including unforeseen struggles we came across, but we’ve worked a lot of that out over the last five years. And we just won renewal of the contract for another five years, so we’re very happy.

One of the major factors that helped us get selected and re-selected is that Dean Miller and our administration here are very supportive of this endeavor and patient with the challenges that come along with it. Thanks to their help and the work that we and the Army have put into this relationship, we will put the University of Kentucky stamp on military social work even more: over the next few years, maybe we’ll get that 75% up to 90%.

Is the UK College of Social Work program better for students who have completed military service? What are the avenues and options through the program for those who just want to be able to help the population of veterans, without serving in the armed forces themselves?

Military Advantage

People who have the military background, whether they did a tour or were in the reserves or something else, want to serve that veteran population, because they developed ties to and empathy for their comrades. Some are prior enlisted service members; others are officers working in other specialties who want to cross over into social work.

And they have an advantage, like I had when I went into my first post-master’s job, by virtue of knowing the general culture, at least, even if they don’t know all the different cultures and subcultures within the military. It’s not one monolithic society and philosophy: the Marines are very different from the Air Force, and even in the Air Force, fighter pilots are very different from social workers.

And those who have some military service, even if it’s a couple of years in the reserves, or come from a military family, learn a lot through the osmosis of being in this system: the jargon, chain of command, rank structures, rules of engagement, how what you say to a person of this rank is not what you say to someone of that rank.

Intro Course

We offer an introductory military social work course that’s a requirement for our certificate program, and I tell our vets, “The first few weeks of this class are going to be a little redundant for you, but we have to start there, because our students without previous military exposure may not know the difference between an NCO and a commissioned officer, or may not know that families relocate every three or four years. Understanding military life and experiences will help our students become exceptional social workers for our military.

Overall Benefit of Military Behavioral Health Education

For learners who have no armed forces background, our military-focused coursework is a great way to develop some competence in working with the veteran population — whether they want to go into the military or the VA themselves — because it can be a challenging group.

If you’re talking to a veteran, especially someone who’s seen a lot of direct conflict and combat, and you don’t understand any of the language and can’t comprehend any of the experiences the person has been through, it’s hard to develop a working relationship and build trust. But I tell students to show appreciation for their experience and take a humble approach.

I wouldn’t try to pass myself off as somebody who understands what an Army Ranger goes through. I served in an air-conditioned hospital for pretty much my whole time in the military; I don’t know what it’s like to go through Ranger training or live in tents out in the field for months at a time. Say, “I know I haven’t done what you’ve done, but I’ve tried to learn as much as I can about military life and culture; help me learn more, so I can better assist and serve you.”

And that may or may not work — an Army Ranger may never see me as a true veteran compared to them. And that’s fine; but it’s about understanding what they’ve been through and where they’re coming from, a lot of which can be learned through diligent study and having exposure to and conversations with veterans and active service members. We try to get our students to do that as much as possible.

So, there’s no military experience required for any of this.

Civil Service, Military, and VA Career Options

For MSW students who want to serve veterans, a big avenue is the VA system, which is very different from the DOD healthcare system. The VA is the largest employer of social workers in the world — there are 13,000 or 14,000 of them. Being a veteran gets you some hiring points to get into the VA, but it’s not required: we’ve had plenty of students come through our MSW program and get jobs in the local VA. Our online MSW students might become social workers who are operating on military installations, alongside the uniformed social workers, and they don’t have to move every few years or deploy to hostile environments.

Alternatively, students can apply directly to the military if they wish. At our program in Texas, we have admitted students directly out of civilian life who have no military experience at all until they show up. They go through a basic officer’s orientation course before they start their MSW coursework, and that’s six weeks or so of military education so that they understand the system and cultural factors.

Maintaining Relationships With Graduates

We place a lot of value on staying in contact with our graduates. One of the great things about our programs is that former students go back and provide us with connections for research partnerships down the line. One fellow who just graduated is going to San Antonio, and he’s already talking with us about how we can partner with one another and get a team together to expand research.

A military system is all about relationships. Our director of student veteran services on campus, a retired lieutenant colonel, always says that, if you want to do business with the DOD, they need to know they can trust you. You can’t just be a name with Ph.D. at the end of it; you can’t even just be a veteran. They need to know you’re going to work collaboratively with no hidden agenda. They want people who want to work with them on solutions.

And I am passionate about this work; I want to give something back, because the military gave me a lot. I see the troops and what they go through, especially our young folks, so I want to do anything I can to make their experience better and to help them adapt and succeed.

For more from Dr. Flaherty, check out his firsthand account of his experience as a social work officer in the US Air Force.

To learn more, explore the University of Kentucky’s Online BSW, MSW and DSW, Support for Military, or their Military Behavioral Health Lab. The UK College of Social Work offers great educational tracks for military and veteran social workers as well as civilians who want to help service members.

To get in touch with an admissions counselor about UK’s military social work programs, fill out this form or call 1-833-358-1721.

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Social workers are tireless in their all-important efforts to help people in need. Yet, despite the challenging nature of their work, many social work practitioners struggle to engage in adequate self-care.

Fortunately, people like Dr. Justin “Jay” Miller, Dean & Dorothy A. Miller Research Professor in Social Work Education at the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky, are dedicating themselves to changing that. Dr. Miller is deeply passionate about self-care for social workers, teachers, healthcare providers, and other helping professionals — so much so that he created a lab at UK devoted to researching and improving self-care.

Dr. Justin "Jay" Miller

Personal Journey to Social Work and Self-Care

Dr. Miller’s path to self-care was very personal. “I hope you will pardon the quintessential fairy-tale type feel of what I am about to share — but from the time I was seven years old, I knew that I wanted to be a social worker. Having spent time in foster and kinship care, being and identifying as a social worker is something that became very meaningful to me,” he says. So, when it came time to pick a major in college, he had already been fully committed to social work for years. “You could not tell me that I was not going to save every foster kid that ever was.”

After graduation, Dr. Miller began working for Child Protective Services (CPS), which was exactly what he wanted to do. “I had been there; I knew what it was like. I wanted to use my experiences to inform my practice with young people who were experiencing abuse and neglect,” he explains.

During his time with CPS, he became obsessed with the work. “There were times I would work my day job and then immediately go to another unit to do night assessments. My day would start at 8:00 AM and end at 1:00 AM. Sometimes I would sleep in my office, wake up, and then start all over again,” he says. “I knew how important it was to devote a certain amount of time and a special kind of attention to the work.”

Years went by, and the job started to take a toll on Dr. Miller.

“I had reached a place that I had told myself I would never get to, where I was burned out and jaded,” Dr. Miller explains. “Every case started to look the same, and it was on that day that I decided I was going to really think through not just what people do for work, but how they do their work.”

If he could get burned out, having been a child of the foster and kinship care systems and knowing what it was like firsthand, then other social workers who didn’t have that context were also going to be struggling.

Dr. Miller had always viewed himself as a child welfare researcher. “To be perfectly honest, I never wanted any part of self-care. It was the furthest thing from my mind,” he remarks. “After the experience with CPS, I decided to do a couple of research studies and co-author a book about self-care in social work and other helping professions, and my interest in the subject has been growing ever since.” He recognized that, regardless of what area of social work a person is in, if they’re going to do their best work, they have to be well and feel good about what they’re doing.

So, Dr. Miller wants to put all practitioners in that mental and emotional space. “Social workers are everywhere, and the world doesn’t run without them. I want them to be able to put their best foot forward. Ultimately, that requires self-care.”

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Research and Global Partnerships Through the Self-Care Lab

Several years ago, Dr. Miller focused his research attention on addressing the phenomena of burnout, vicarious trauma, and other problematic employment conditions. 

“Through a grant, I launched the self-care lab,” Dr. Miller states. “It was the first known entity explicitly dedicated to doing empirical work around self-care. I started it as a strategy to understand self-care practices and, perhaps more importantly, learn how we can better support professionals in understanding the importance of, and strategies for, engaging in self-care.”

Through the work of the lab, Dr. Miller and his colleagues began to learn that social workers and other helping professionals engage with and talk about self-care in silos. This approach is the habit of discussing or thinking about a subject or issue in isolation, as it relates to one’s own specific job, discipline, or area within a field — without considering the way that topic or problem applies to the broader context of one’s organization or one’s whole field. It often leads to a lack of communication and information sharing between departments or institutions.

Whether you’re working in protective services with children, at a nursing home with aging people, or at a hospital or non-profit with cancer patients and their families, self-care is going to be relevant to and necessary for you. “One thing that we have learned from our work in the lab is that self-care is a concept that transcends practice areas and geographic boundaries,” says Dr. Miller. “The more work we shared about self-care, the more emails I got from practitioners around the world about their struggles with engaging in self-care.”

In response, Dr. Miller launched the Global Self-Care Initiative. This international partnership network, which has grown to over 17 countries, focuses on cultural nuances of professional workplaces and how self-care can help mitigate the stress caused by these workplaces. Having traveled and given lectures on self-care in many parts of the world, Dr. Miller is often struck by how differently people work. “A lot of how helping professionals go about their practice is influenced by their cultures. And what I hope we are able to do through The Global Self-Care Initiative is create a common language and supportive structure around self-care in social work and all helping professions,” he adds.

Opportunities for Online Students to Interact With the Self-Care Lab

Dr. Miller and his staff provide learners with a multitude of opportunities to engage with the self-care lab. There are the academic and training offerings enabling students to learn more about self-care as a science, which Dr. Miller and his faculty and partners are focused on advancing. But they are also passionate about tailoring the lab to the specific goals of scholars, so their approach is driven by what each individual student wants to get from the experience.

“A lot of people talk about self-care in a superficial way. It is much more than mindfulness classes, bubble baths and yoga. While these things are cool and are certainly examples of self-care practices, in the lab, we are focused on the concept of self-care. Ultimately, self-care is a subjective thing that everyone has to define for themselves. And, no matter how one defines it, we want to create a culture that supports it,”says Dr. Miller. He and his team help learners figure out how they can engage in a sustained career by building up common practices for resilience and wellness.

In The Self-Care Lab, students are involved in a variety of different projects and often have opportunities to travel around the country, giving presentations about work they have done in the lab. “We really try to engage with learners, and our students are welcome to be a part of any of our ongoing projects,” Dr. Miller states. “We also work to create opportunities where our faculty, staff, and students can receive grants and other support to explore their own ideas pertaining to self-care.”

In addition to the formal work at the lab, when students are at their field placements or doing small group assignments, they are encouraged to think about how they can integrate self-care into all parts of their training. “Some of them want to learn more about self-care in social work for themselves; others want to publish papers and do their own assessments and research. Our objective is to support them in doing what they want to do, not what we want them to do,” Dr. Miller notes. He and his team welcome opportunities to engage in discussions with students.

To date, Dr. Miller has had undergraduate, graduate, and Ph.D. students all together in the self-care lab. “Increasingly, potential students make their college decisions based on where they can be actively and meaningfully involved in research and other projects. We are certainly committed to making those opportunities available to our students,” he says.

Important Parts of Self-Care and Ways Employers Can Reduce Burnout and Compassion Fatigue in Social Workers

Through his work in the lab, Dr. Miller has developed the Self-care Actualization Theory. Rooted in research that has been conducted in the lab, this theory suggests that self-care is not innate, but rather, a professional skill that can and must be learned, fostered, and developed. In the same way that practitioners can learn interviewing skills or research concepts, so too can they learn and hone self-care skills. And in the UK College of Social Work, that’s one of the ways he and his faculty have approached teaching students about it.

“It’s important for people to get over the myths and misnomers about self-care,” says Dr. Miller. “It is not something that just happens. We must be intentional about self-care. In our college, we conduct self-care trainings and even have credit-earning self-care courses. Simply put, we are serious about it.”

A lot of times, people wait around for the “perfect time” to practice self-care, but it never comes. Self-care is something that needs to be integrated into your life. It is not just about what you do for work — it is a crucial aspect of how you work. You have to think about and adapt the practices you take on every day to ensure you are being mindful of your own wellness.

From an organizational perspective, some similar concepts apply. First off, businesses, agencies, institutions, and supervisors have an obligation to make sure their employees are practicing self-care. “As an administrator, it is my responsibility to ensure I put my faculty, staff, and students in spaces to engage in self-care,” Dr. Miller states. “That involves looking at policies, practices, procedures, and protocols that lend credence to or support that self-care. We really try to be creative about providing that support.”

Secondly, it’s important to recognize that self-care is about restructuring our work — and the time we spend at work — to be conducive to our wellness. It’s not the number of days professionals come to work each week that matters; it’s what they do with the days. So, Dr. Miller and his faculty and students have a lot of candid conversations about that. “There are a lot of studies — many of them out of Europe — about the concept of the four-day work week. The authors have found that many of the things administrators or organizational leaders believe are integral to getting better work out of their employees are actually the things that hinder good work,” he explains.

By reframing and restructuring and getting people to understand that it’s how they work that really matters, Dr. Miller has found that he and other administrators and executives can integrate a better strategy into social work. “We have a responsibility: it’s the right thing to do from an innate humanity standpoint, and, if you want people to be productive and retained, self-care is indispensable,” he says.

Organizations often talk about retention and how much it costs to lose somebody and train someone new. As Dr. Miller points out, people want to work at a place that is conducive to them being well, so if you create that environment, you’ll increase employee longevity and reduce training, recruiting, and other costs. “We get into the myth of thinking self-care in social work has to be expensive or that it’s solely an HR function, but it’s not — it’s an investment we make in our people, and ultimately, one that delivers a huge return.”

Lessons From Experience

Another thing Dr. Miller has learned over the years is that not everything that soothes you is self-care. He wrote an article about pernicious practices, which are behaviors that helping professionals think are healthy but really are not. And they’re different for various people. “The fact that something suits you and makes you feel good does not mean it is self-care,” he asserts.

Dr. Miller stresses that social workers have to take a critical appraisal of what they’re doing — and when it comes to self-care, knowing what not to do is just as important as knowing what to do.

“A lot of times, people talk about self-care planning and the things they want to do. But in one of our classes, I lead students in an exercise where we talk about things they want to stop. Often, people don’t consider those. And it’s powerful for them to think about the everyday actions, behaviors, people, and things they need to remove from their lives to be well and do their best work,” he says.

Opportunities to Learn More

Whether you are already passionate about social work or simply interested in learning more about the field and how to properly take care of yourself, so that you can do your best work in a healthy way, the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky offers a path for you. The school provides the online Bachelor of Arts in Social Work, Master of Social Work, and Doctorate of Social Work.

To explore these degrees as well as the University of Kentucky CoSW’s unique and pioneering self-care lab, please fill out the form located here or call 1-833-358-1721.

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The rural and urban divide has steadily received more attention over the past decade. Conversations on different values, lifestyles, and even different voting habits have taken up space in new cycles. Perhaps some of the more startling differences, though, appear in the impacts of social issues.

Many social problems continue to affect rural communities more severely than urban ones. As a result, rural social work practitioners face different obstacles when serving in those areas. In order to offer the most effective support, rural social workers need to understand those unique challenges and think creatively about how to solve them.

Rural Social Work Challenges

Limited Access to Mental Health Support

Access to mental health services is a major obstacle for people in rural areas, even though the “prevalence of mental illness in rural and metropolitan areas is similar,” according to the Journal of Clinical and Translational Science. Specifically, 65% of nonmetropolitan counties do not have psychiatrists. This gap in mental health outcomes results in a disproportionately higher rate of untreated depression and substance abuse.

To help curb these disparities, many social workers push for greater access to telemental health support, healthcare coverage, and a combination of primary care and mental health resources. One organization that offers an effective union of mental health and medical services is the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, which works to serve the more than 2.8 million rural veterans that depend on the VA for healthcare. The VA’s measures to expand its telemental health reach have proven successful so far, with the rate of veterans employing remote psychotherapy steadily rising. According to recent research published from the journal Telemedicine and E-Health, there was a 442% increase in telemental health sessions conducted over videoconferencing in 2020 as compared to 2019.

Difficulty Finding Physician Care

Though 20% of the population in the United States inhabit rural spaces, only 10% of the country’s physicians practice in these areas, according to the article “Addressing Rural Health Challenges Head On.” It’s a much greater challenge with much greater consequences for rural residents to find routine care when they need it.

With this shortage of primary care physicians and trained professionals in rural areas, social workers have to think outside of the box. According to the article “Rural Health Networks and Care Coordination,” a compelling solution to the physician shortage and high cost of healthcare in rural areas is to organize community care teams (CCT). Researchers for the study found that even though “patients who participated in care coordination reported similar physical and lower emotional health quality of life than national counterparts,” participants were able to avoid going to the emergency room by finding more convenient care pathways.

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The care coordination needed for CCT programs to be successful is varied and can take on several structures, depending on a community’s needs and available resources. Social workers tend to offer the most support through roles such as care managers – who coordinate between patients and primary care providers or specialists – and even acting as care providers.

Higher Levels of Poverty

Poverty exists everywhere in the United States, but there are currently more people in rural areas that face poverty than in urban or metropolitan communities. From research conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2018, the poverty rate in rural areas was nearly 4% higher than in metro counterparts.

Despite this economic disparity, rural areas have experienced a lower unemployment rate in recent years. Social workers can capitalize on this positive trend by combatting the factors that contribute to poverty outside of the unemployment rate – they can advocate for job training, furthering education to qualify for higher-paying jobs, and ensure job-searchers still have access to resources while unemployed.

Greater Risk of Overdose

Substance abuse, and specifically the opioid epidemic that began in the early 2000s, has hit rural communities especially hard. The CDC recently reported that deadly drug overdoses since 1999 have been higher in rural areas than urban spaces. While drug abuse rates have remained relatively similar between metro and nonmetro populations, more people in rural areas are dying from overdosing.

To give rural residents a better chance of surviving drug overdoses, first responders are now equipped with the medication naloxone across rural communities. While social workers won’t necessarily be the ones to administer the lifesaving medication themselves, they can continue to train the community on overdose preventative measures, back advocacy-based legislation, and create overdose kits. As a result, those struggling with substance abuse can gain access to the resources they need.

Telehealth Adaption Disparities

According to the CDC, those who reside in rural spaces are at greater risk of dying from these issues than their urban counterparts:

  • Heart disease
  • Accidental injury
  • Stroke
  • Cancer
  • Lower respiratory disease

Despite the increased risks that rural populations face, many are unable to go to the doctor. In addition to the lack of healthcare providers in rural communities, the physicians and medical professionals who practice in nonmetro areas are usually located farther away. This increased distance makes the commute more difficult for patients.

To help curb these higher rates, many healthcare providers have turned to telehealth. These remote services link patients with trained professionals who can offer medical advice and prescribe medicine remotely. This advancement has the potential to benefit rural communities immensely, but research has indicated there is hesitancy to use it. Many factors could contribute to why people in rural communities aren’t using telehealth, including lack of internet access, personal connection with a doctor, and awareness of telehealth offerings.

Recently, access to communications platforms has expanded, and the number of new users has grown on a massive scale. Programs like Zoom have helped people stay connected to family, employers, and now, mental health providers are using similar platforms to reach clients. Telehealth providers and rural social workers can tap into this momentum to appeal to rural residents to start using remote care opportunities for their medical needs.

Reaching Children across Great Distances

One vulnerable group that requires greater attention from social workers in rural spaces is children. In the Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), researchers found child abuse rates were 1.7 times higher in rural areas than in major urban places.

One overlooked obstacle that social workers must confront is the great physical distance in serving children. According to the HHS’s report “Rural Child Welfare Practice,” 87.5% of surveyed rural social work practitioners who serve children have identified long travel distances as one of the biggest hurdles in offering support.

To offer support to these children and families where access to resources may be limited, many rural communities have established regional health centers. These centers can feature treatment programs and health offerings that include vascular care, cancer treatment, eye care, physical rehabilitation, and behavioral health. Social workers can use these health centers as support hubs to extend their reach into rural areas. According to the same HHS report, more than 33% of people who seek care from these regional health centers come from rural communities, which helps alleviate the stress of traveling greater distances.

Training for the Future of Rural Social Work

While these barriers present challenges every day, there’s never been a more pressing time for passionate social workers to serve rural communities. When rural communities receive the support they need from trained professionals, they can use these resources to improve lives. One of the most effective ways to help these communities is by gaining real-world training from professionals with experience in the field.

The online MSW from the University of Kentucky will equip you with the skills to support vulnerable and diverse populations across rural areas. The program importantly features three areas of focus: Clinical Social Work, Individualized Plan of Study, and Substance Use Disorder. Additionally, the University of Kentucky will provide a Rural Social Work certificate in 2022.The University of Kentucky also offers an online Bachelor of Arts in Social Work and an online Doctorate of Social Work. All of these options will give you the opportunity to develop career-ready skills that provide you the best platform to serve different rural communities that face unique challenges.

Learn more about the MSW program and how you can complete it in as few as 30 credit hours today.

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In this video, James Watts, chief of social work service and chaplain service at the Lexington VA Health Care System, describes how UK’s MSW with a military behavioral health certificate can prepare students for working with veterans through a deep understanding of military life. As a UK alumnus and former MSW student, James understands the value of a program specifically designed for military populations.

Watts explains that MSW students who are interested in pursuing a VA internship can work with their advisor to explore opportunities. Students who successfully complete their year-long VA internship can also benefit from direct hiring for social work roles within the Department of Veterans Affairs

JAMES WATTS: James Watts, I’m the chief of Social Work Service and Chaplain Service at the Lexington VA Health Care System. I received my MSW from the University of Kentucky in 1997. The military certificate program affords MSW students the opportunity to have very specific education in regard to military culture, military life. It is a secondary certificate that the person would receive in addition to their MSW that would attest to a future employer that this person has specific knowledge around the military culture and about military life and post-military life as a veteran.

The importance of a specifically designed educational program about military populations is that that population is different. If a student is interested in working with a veteran population, the first thing I would do is say speak to your advisor because they can help guide you towards a particular practicum that would be helpful for that. If you are interested in becoming a practicum student or an internship student at the VA, your placement advisor will help you with that.

You have to go through a interview. You have to go through an orientation. There are some background things we need to do to make sure that we can have a person around veterans and providing care to veterans. And you will have a year-long internship in most cases as an MSW student to be able to learn. If you want to be there.

There is a specific law that’s in effect right now to where if you’ve done an internship for the Department of Veterans Affairs, you do not have to compete for a position if one becomes available. They can direct hire you if you have done well during your internship. We have 140 facilities throughout the nation and territories of the United States to where if you want to go work in Michigan or Puerto Rico or Guam, we have a place there. And you can apply for that position, or they can attempt to hire you into a direct hire process. But the first thing to do is to talk to your advisor and say, hey, I might be interested.

Along with the online Master of Social Work, the University of Kentucky also offers an online Bachelor of Arts in Social Work and Doctorate of Social Work.

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Watch as Chris Flaherty, director of the Military Behavioral Health Research Laboratory and associate professor, discusses the many ways UK’s College of Social Work (CoSW) serves military and veteran populations. In this video, he explains his own path to pursuing clinical social work and military social work as well as how UK developed strategic partnerships with the U.S. Army, Department of Veterans Affairs, and Department of Defense.

Through offerings like an online MSW degree with military-specific coursework, military behavioral health graduate certificate, and military behavioral health lab, the CoSW is committed to supporting service members, their families, and veterans.

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CHRISTOPHER FLAHERTY: I came to learn about military social work in kind of a roundabout way. It was kind of a happy accident for me. I enlisted in the Air Force in 1985. And I was given this big binder of potential jobs, and I flipped through. And I came across one called mental health technician. And having always been interested in human behavior and psychology, I thought, well, maybe this would be right for me.

So I did that, took that job. And that really put me in a setting to learn deeply about military behavioral health. I worked alongside clinical social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists. And that’s when I decided to direct my studies toward clinical social work. In 1992 I completed my MSW, and then I transitioned from an enlisted member, mental health technician, to a clinical social work officer and served in that role for the next 13 years until retirement.

Then I immediately joined the faculty at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work upon retirement and really wanted to find a way to tie my passion for working with serving military and veteran populations on this side of the fence. And that’s where we started talking about developing our relationship with the Army, competing for this unique MSW program out of Fort Sam Houston, Texas, which 75% of new Army social work officers go through this program.

We didn’t want to stop there. We wanted to really pump up our offerings of military behavioral health here on Main Campus, as well. So that’s where we rolled out a military behavioral health graduate certificate, specific coursework related to military behavioral health, work to expand opportunities for field placements in military-specific settings, and then recently just stood up our military behavioral health lab.

The concept behind the lab is to pull together all these various endeavors we have around military behavioral health. We have faculty members working at the VA, studying PTSD and innovative techniques to treat PTSD. We have researchers looking at the impact of suicide on survivors and the risk that that entails for them. We’re working with the Army to develop a data analysis agreement with them where we will become their primary partner for 1st Armored Division to analyze their military behavioral health survey data.

Research is vitally important in expanding and improving military behavioral health. That’s where the University of Kentucky can be a very valuable partner to the military. We have the resources here to gather large amounts of data, to analyze data, to measure outcomes, to put improvements back into the system. And it’s all about the best services possible to the service member, their families, and the veterans.

Along with the online Master of Social Work, the University of Kentucky also offers an online Bachelor of Arts in Social Work and Doctorate of Social Work.

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In this video, Chris Flaherty, director of the Military Behavioral Health Research Laboratory and associate professor, shares information about the services available to veteran students through the Student Veteran Resource Center. Our university has a strong veteran connection and offers a variety of services designed to support military members as they transition to student life. From military financial aid to help accessing GI Bill resources, Dr. Flaherty discusses the ways our dedicated team can help you succeed.

CHRISTOPHER FLAHERTY: An important service offered at the University of Kentucky is our Student Veteran Resource Center. And that center exists to help military members transition from military to student status or to support those who are in the military while they’re in student status.

That office provides an array of services, including helping to access financial aid and providing a support network. This center provides a connection to other veterans and also just basic information about how do you access your GI Bill. It even provides short-term loans for those who have a delay in getting their GI Bill. It’s really there to wrap its arms around the veteran student and to give them every chance to be successful in their studies.

Along with the online Master of Social Work, the University of Kentucky also offers an online Bachelor of Arts in Social Work and Doctorate of Social Work.