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Courses prepare students to assist soldiers and their families

The School of Social Work is stepping up its efforts to better prepare social workers to assist military veterans and their families.

Although faculty members have long conducted research aimed at helping returning soldiers, students also now have more opportunities to learn about the physical and emotional challenges that service members and their families face before, during, and after deployments. Thanks to a recent revision of the School’s entire curriculum, more classes now include content on issues affecting military members and their families.

Incorporating subject matter, such as the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), into a wider variety of classes gives more students access to knowledge and resources that are increasingly vital, especially as communities face growing needs from civilian soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, said Anna Scheyett, the School’s associate dean for academic affairs.

“It is essential that social workers become better prepared to meet the unique needs of this population,” she said.

To that end, the School is also offering one course that focuses entirely on helping students better understand the military environment and the issues that service members and their families face. “Policies Impacting Military Families” explores the housing, income and social support services and programs that can affect the stability and well-being of soldiers, their spouses and children, said instructor Laurie Selz-Campbell, who developed the course. The course also examines issues that can impact an individual or family’s health, mental health and social welfare.

Additionally, the class was designed with the flexibility to incorporate topics that students are interested in learning more about, Selz-Campbell said. For example, those enrolled in the class this semester have already suggested more detailed discussions on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy that bans openly gay men and women from serving in the military, as well as information on how the armed services handles confidentiality around sexual assaults. Others have raised concerns about veterans diagnosed with PTSD and the lengthy process that many face – sometimes up to 18 months – to qualify for treatment services.

Selz-Campbell said part of her role is helping students sort through the challenges and to consider options that social workers could potentially offer as solutions.

“My hope for this class is that students will leave prepared to be better advocates,” she said “… And that they’ll have a greater awareness for the services that are out there for military service members and their families, how they are structured, the barriers that exist and the sensitivities that they will need to bring to their practice.”

The additional focus on the military is just one of numerous changes made this year to strengthen the School’s curriculum. Overall, 30 new courses were added, with many classes replacing older ones and offering more concentrated content, Scheyett said. For example, students can find more intensive material on the diagnostics and statistics of mental disorders, as well as advanced courses that weave together theory and practice, she said.

“The changes also provide additional in-depth content and skill in particular evidence-based and promising practices and enable students to tailor their coursework to better meet their specific professional goals,” Scheyett added.

At least one other course focusing on the military is in the works. Gary Bowen, a Kenan Distinguished Professor, is developing the class as part of a five-year project that he is collaborating on with Irene Nathan Zipper, a School clinical professor. Bowen expects the course, “Social Work Practice With Military Members, Veterans and Their Families,” to be available by spring 2011.