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William F. Connell School of Nursing

Adult Male Survivors Healing from Childhood Maltreatment

nursing research

Danny Willis

Danny Willis had his "aha" moment years ago, back when he was an undergraduate nursing student at the University of Mississippi. He was assigned a clinical rotation at a state psychiatric hospital for the chronically mentally ill.

"I immediately felt at home," recalls Willis, associate professor of psychiatric and mental health at the Connell School of Nursing. "I really connected with the idea of the therapeutic use of self. The human being is the instrument of change. It's not an IV or a bag of fluids or the administration of blood. It's you, and the job you have is to facilitate growth and healing and health."

Willis, who recently received tenure, has turned this moment of insight into a groundbreaking research project he hopes will lead to interventions that improve long-term health promotion. He will explore healing among male survivors of childhood abuse. While the subject has recently garnered attention in popular culture and the mainstream media, this nurse-researcher aims to delve beyond the sensationalist headlines to find evidence-based solutions to emerging public health problems.

Willis gives lecture to students

Willis, who received the Eastern Nursing Research Conference's "Rising Star" award this spring, embarked recently on research that explores healing as a phenomenon. He is the principal investigator on a study, "Adult Male Survivors Healing from Childhood Maltreatment," that is funded in part by a two-year National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Nursing Research grant. Through interviews with men who describe themselves as having healed (at least to some degree) from the trauma of childhood abuse, Willis aims to identify, describe, and clarify the nature of the healing process. He believes that developing a deeper understanding of the indicators and influences of healing—spiritual, psychological, environmental, physical, cognitive, and emotional—will lead to the development of interventions that might ease and enhance the curative process.

Most of the existing research on childhood abuse focuses on the pathological outcomes of the trauma, rather than on the potential to move on and have a productive life, even experience happiness and joy, says Willis. "Some people do live through abuse," he says. "Even though a cure is not possible, healing will happen. And what is that? How is it expressed? How does it happen?"

Those questions have been at the core of his clinical and research work. But when Willis began to explore the research literature about abuse, he discovered that most of it focused on female survivors. He decided to train his attention on male survivors as an attempt to fill that gap.

The shroud of secrecy that cloaked the problem of male childhood abuse has been torn away in recent years, as men came forward during the investigation of the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, and public figures, including Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, disclosed that they were sexually abused as children.

"The tide is changing," says Willis, recalling a day last fall he arrived home and turned on the television to see Oprah Winfrey dedicating an episode of her show to interviewing scores of male victims of childhood abuse. "Every single one of them was an abuse survivor," says Willis. "That was the validation that this is the time to be doing this work."

To that end, Willis is now immersed in the first leg of his research project, which comprises interviews with adult male survivors who report having healed enough to experience quality of life and enjoy feelings of peace, calm, and connectedness. He and his research team are in the process of developing a coding system to track cognitive and emotional indicators and factors that influence the healing process.

Willis is continually moved, he says, by his subjects' resilience and strength. "It bolsters their sense of agency to realize that they actually have done quite a bit of healing and they are truly amazing human beings," he notes.

After this research study is complete, Willis ultimately hopes to conduct further research and to use the data to develop interventions and therapeutic approaches that encourage more men to experience healing and what he calls "holistic growth." And that is what brings Willis back to his roots, back to the day when he fell in love with the idea of using the self as an instrument of change.

"My goal as a nurse researcher is to be an interventionist," he explains. "I hope this will improve men's access to services that reflect their core needs for healing as a whole person.” As he sees it, "the central focus for nursing is on facilitating humanization, meaning, choice, quality of life, and healing. Ultimately, I think that is where this work will lead."