ARCHIVED - Social Work Officers: Paving the Road to Mental Readiness

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Article / July 14, 2015 / Project number: 15-0011

Gagetown, NB – Major Valérie Marceau, a senior clinical advisor at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Gagetown, says the current landscape of mental health awareness in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) aims to reduce mental health stigma and provide adequate resources and services for those in need. Maj Marceau offers clinical services in a leadership role, both at home and abroad, and coaches soldiers using the Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR) – a program designed to ensure that all CAF members are prepared mentally for any challenges that may be ahead.

Maj Marceau says her life-long passion for social work, coupled with an interest in military life and the desire to travel, have helped to shape her career as a social worker in the Canadian Army (CA). “My initial interest in social work came from a peer support program in high school when I was about 15 or 16 years old. We received training about how to listen to our peers, how to respond and what resources to use or recommend,” said Maj Marceau. “It was clear to me after that program that my life would be dedicated to helping others.

Maj Marceau moved from her quiet hometown of Normandin, Quebec, to pursue a Bachelor of Social Work at Laval University in Québec City and later a Master of Social Work at the University of Ottawa before joining the CA in 2007. During her studies, she worked full-time at the Suicide Prevention Centre in Québec City, an experience she credits as one of the most valuable points in her training and education before the CA.

Now a senior clinical advisor, she says the highest point in her military career so far has been her deployment to the NATO Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit in Kandahar, Afghanistan, from November 2010 to June 2011.

My job was to serve all of the seriously injured troops that were working outside of the wire. We were there for those troops at what were potentially the hardest moments of their lives, but we [the medical staff] were there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” she said. “Our whole lives were dedicated to serving those soldiers – and when you start to see someone getting better and feeling hopeful again, there is nothing more rewarding than that.

Maj Marceau says mental health readiness is, and continues to be, a critical component of deployment training, particularly with the legacy of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan.

More than 40 000 Regular Force personnel were deployed to Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014, which may contribute to the roughly one in six Regular Force members who reported symptoms of depression, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety among other mental health conditions in 2013, according to the latest Statistics Canada report published in November 2014. Between 2002 and 2013 the rate of depression among Regular Force members remained the same, while the rate of PTSD nearly doubled from 2.8 per cent in 2002 to 5.3 per cent in 2013.

Mental health is out much more as a topic and I think we’ve come a very long way in terms of reducing stigma not only in the military, but in the civilian population as well,” said Maj Marceau. “Thirty years ago, people were not very talkative about anxiety, depression or any other type of condition. Nowadays, we hear much more about those issues.

Maj Marceau was recently tasked with supporting a Third Location Decompression (TLD) from April 30 to May 8, 2015 in the United Kingdom for members who were deployed on Operation SIRONA, Canada’s contribution to the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone. The three-day reintegration program provided members with a structured environment in which to unwind and prepare for the transition from operations in West Africa to domestic life in Canada. In 2008, she supported two TLD programs held in Cyprus following Canada’s mission in Afghanistan.

An ideal candidate for this trade is someone who is adaptable, flexible and compassionate, said Maj Marceau. “As one example, the Canadian Armed Forces recently introduced Virtual Reality Exposure Treatment, a computer-animated simulation program, as a new mental health care delivery method for soldiers with PTSD and other anxiety disorders. Social Work Officers should not only adapt to these new treatment methods, but also learn how to use them effectively.

Quick facts about Social Work Officers in the Canadian Armed Forces:

  • Social Work Officers provide clinical services similar to community mental health agencies and organizations. The primary responsibilities of a Social Work Officer are to provide clinical intervention services, assist with the investigation and resolution of compassionate situations, advise leaders on the social circumstances encountered by personnel in their units and deliver preventative and rehabilitative programs.
  • Following basic training, Social Work Officers are posted to a base to complete twelve months of on-the-job training where they expand and broaden clinical social work approaches under the supervision of a more senior Social Work Officer. Official second language training may also be offered.
  • Social Work Officers work at a base, wing or garrison and deploy overseas on operational missions. They may be required to collaborate with civilian agencies to develop appropriate referral contacts and to remain updated on current professional development and social legislation.
  • Those who demonstrate the required ability, dedication and potential are selected for career progression, promotion and advanced training. Social Work Officers may progress to senior positions that involve supervisory responsibility at health care clinics across the country.
  • Specialty training may be offered through formal courses and on-the-job training in the following areas: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Training, Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples.

Despite the challenges, Maj Marceau says her work with civilian social welfare agencies prepared her well for her current role in the CA as both deal with and involve universal human issues. “We see lots of people who have work-related or family stress, marital problems or who are having a hard time balancing a military career and a life at home. But in the end, I know we are doing our part when I see someone find the courage to come down, cross our doorway and simply ask for help.

By Meagan Sylvester, Army Public Affairs

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