As the end of the spring semester draws near, Erick DuShane is juggling three courses, two campus jobs, and an internship as an outpatient clinician for children as young as 4.
He’s marked the due dates for his final five assignments on a big calendar in his bedroom—a constant reminder of what he needs to do and when. And he’s well aware of the energy he will need to devote to the papers, group projects, and process recordings standing between him and a master’s degree from the Boston College School of Social Work in May.
But he is also carving out time on the weekends to hang out with his friends and family, a welcome respite from the grind of graduate school.
“One big thing that I’ve learned is that you need to take time for yourself,” says, DuShane, who focuses his studies on children, youth, and families. “For me, it’s making sure that I see my friends and connect with family, because that gives me the energy that I can then invest into my assignments.”
DuShane has honed his strategy for taking care of himself in monthly meetings run by the leaders of the school’s Trauma Integration Initiative, a holistic program that prepares students to help clients cope with trauma while guarding themselves against its effects. Organizers say the meetings focus primarily on self-care, with the goal of helping students develop the skills to handle vicarious trauma.
Research shows that self-care, whether it’s working out, eating healthfully, or getting outside, is linked to lower levels of stress and higher quality of life. And in the field of social work, where 75 percent of practitioners experience burnout, finding ways to care for yourself as you care for others is paramount to success.
“I think we still struggle with a mentality that pushing harder and pushing further is a sign of caring, and that’s not always the best way for our practice,” says Kathleen Flinton, an assistant professor who co-chairs the Trauma Integration Initiative. “As we think about being in the field over time, we need to realize that we are our most important clinical tool. And so how do we take care of that tool so that we can stay in the work for as long as we want to?”
Flinton prioritizes rest. Instead of working for three or four hours on a Sunday afternoon, she might go for a walk instead.
“I try to step out of a mindset that effectiveness means being productive all the time,” says Flinton, who is teaching three sections of “Advanced Trauma Theory and Treatment Modalities” this semester. “Prioritizing rest is an important step toward improving your health and well being and also your learning.”
Flinton recently taught a class on sleep, which is proven to reduce stress, improve academic success, and lower the risk of serious health problems. She started the lesson by asking her students how they feel when they don’t get enough sleep—and the answers were pretty much unanimous.
“Our window of what we’re able to tolerate starts to become really narrow,” says Flinton, “we might become irritable, and then we start to obsess about the fact that we’re not sleeping, which continues to interrupt our sleep.”
Emily Redfern, who is in the second year of the three-year MSW/MBA dual degree program, vows to develop a more regular sleep schedule in the final weeks of the spring semester. Her days are busy, with four business classes and a part-time job overseeing volunteers at the Campus School at BC, and finding time to rest is one of her priorities.
“That will be a goal and ambition,” she says of developing a better bedtime routine, “but we’ll see if I can follow through with it.”
Attending the TII’s monthly meetings has made her realize that self-care looks different for everyone—that it may not always feature a bubble bath and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. She says she tries to get outside every day and hopes to visit Acadia National Park after classes end. Her plan is backed by data, with one recent study finding that having things to look forward to reduces stress and improves mood.
“Getting outside daily is huge for my mental health, and just seeing greenery and expansive spaces is something that I value,” says Redfern, who studies in the global field of practice. “It’s been fun for me to start paying attention to those moments where my cup is being filled.”
Matt Conti, a first-year student who taught high school before coming to BC, says his partner and two children fill up his cup. He likes to unwind by playing games with his kids, 7 and 4, chatting with his spouse, or doing yoga.
The TII meetings, he says, have underscored the need to take breaks and make time for family. “If I’m starting to feel my anxiety about an assignment creep up,” he says, “I take a break, get on the yoga mat, take a walk, or talk to my partner to get some space from it.”
His schedule is packed—four classes and a clinical internship at the Pine Street Inn, Boston’s largest homeless shelter, where he works with adult men in recovery. But he’s written out a list of everything he needs to do over the next five weeks and reminding himself that he’s never failed to finish his tasks.
“I think the way that I deal with the workload is to constantly remind myself that I’ve always gotten things done,” says Conti, who studies in the children, youth, and families field of practice. He likes to refer to a saying that he would repeat to his students as they were toiling away on papers and projects: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
What’s keeping Conti motivated in crunch time is a long-delayed trip to Lisbon and the Azores, a 10-day vacation in June to celebrate his 10-year wedding anniversary. “I definitely have that trip in my mind,” he says. “But just getting through the first year is its own sort of satisfaction.”
What else can students do to finish the semester on a high note? Flinton suggests they reflect on what brought them to BC to study social work. “Think back to why you came to social work school, maybe go back and read your admissions essay,” she says. “Make contact with what it was that drew you here as something to help to motivate you and sustain you through these busy weeks.”