A psychotherapist and her patient talk during a therapy session

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Students who pursue master’s degrees in social work often do internships in schools, hospitals, and community organizations, where they serve clients who have experienced trauma.

And studies show that caregivers who are regularly exposed to traumatized patients often develop symptoms that mimic post-traumatic stress disorder. 

One study, published in 2007, found that more than 15 percent of social workers met the criteria for PTSD. That could mean that they avoid people, struggle to concentrate, or have disturbing dreams.

Are interns in the field of social work—and their supervisors—prepared to cope with the fallout from indirect exposure to trauma?

A team of researchers at UCLA in partnership with Boston College and Boston University will present their preliminary findings at the Council on Social Work Education Annual Program Meeting next week.

“Social work interns are of particular concern because many are new to the field and may not be well-equipped to cope with exposure to trauma,” says Scott Easton, an associate professor in the Boston College School of Social Work who’s working on the study with student Liana Sandell. “While significant research has examined the impact of secondary stress on social work practitioners,” says Easton, who chairs the Health and Mental Health fields of practice, “few studies have focused on the impact or preparedness of social work students entering the field.”

A photo of Scott Easton

Scott Easton, an associate professor in the Boston College School of Social Work

Easton and Sandell are two of eight students, faculty, and alumni in the School of Social Work who will present their research at the meeting, which will be held virtually from Monday, Nov. 16 to Friday, Nov. 20. 

The meeting will feature presentations, daily keynote sessions, and a virtual exhibit hall. The School of Social Work sponsored the plenary lecture, which will be delivered by Ibram X. Kendi, who founded the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University

For this study, Lea Vugic, an instructor in the BU School of Social Work, and Melanie Sonsteng-Person, a doctoral candidate in social work at UCLA, interviewed interns and supervisors at three MSW programs across the country. Their goal was to better understand how they describe and respond to being exposed to trauma from their clients.

Initial findings, which focus on the supervisors, suggest that the way supervisors support interns depends on their age, race, gender, exposure to trauma, and prior meetings with clients, says Sandell, who is scheduled to graduate from the Boston College School of Social Work in May. Supervisors, she says, use a variety of coping mechanisms to manage exposure to trauma, including avoiding the issue, getting therapy, and using humor. And, she says, they often relay the techniques they learned to their interns.

“Maladaptive coping among supervisors can lead to difficulty identifying and responding to intern traumatization in the field,” says Sandell, who is collecting and analyzing data for the project. “On the other hand, adaptive coping mechanisms allow supervisors to guide their interns in effectively coping with exposure to client trauma.”

A photo of Liana Sandell

Liana Sandell, a student in the Boston College School of Social Work

Easton says the project aligns with the school’s Trauma Integration Initiative, a strategic effort to integrate trauma-informed theory, principles, and practice into curriculum, field education, and research. The ultimate goal of the research study, he says, is to provide recommendations to interns, supervisors, agencies, and field departments to reduce secondary trauma. 

“What could the field department do better and what could schools of social work do better?” says Easton. “What could the agency that’s providing the internship do to improve the supervision, quality, and the self-care of the students?”

Sandell says that the project has prepared her to pursue a doctorate in social work, which will require her to continue to do research. “I'm glad I was given this opportunity by professor Easton,” she says. “I feel like it's taken my education to the next level.”

Easton agrees. “The work that Liana is doing now is on the level of a doctoral student,” he says. “It’s high level analytical work that I couldn't be prouder of or more impressed with.”

Here is the schedule for students, faculty, and alumni in the Boston College School of Social Work who will present their research at the Council of Social Work Education Annual Program Meeting next week:

Day and time: Tuesday, November 17, 2020 from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Type of presentation: Poster 
Title of project: “Secondary Traumatic Stress: How Prepared Are MSW Interns and Supervisors?”
BCSSW contributors: Scott Easton, associate professor, and Liana Sandell, MSW’21

Day and time: Thursday November 19, 2020 from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Type of presentation: Workshop
Title of project: “Kapwa: Applying Filipinx Cultural Values in Social Work”
BCSSW contributors: Nicole Fortuno Abeleda, MSW’20, and Dale Dagar Maglalang, PhD’20

Day and time: Thursday, November 19th from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Type of presentation: Poster 
Title of project: “Engaging a Grand Challenge: Integrating Smart Decarceration Content Across Social Work Curricula”
BCSSW contributor: Abril N. Harris, PhD’21

Day and time: Friday, November 20 from 11 a.m. to noon
Title of project: “Bridging the Gap: Supporting Latinx PhD Students and Emerging Scholars”
BCSSW contributor: Rocío Calvo, associate professor 

Day and time: Available on demand 
Type of presentation: Pre-recorded video
Title of project: “Job Stressors and Solutions: Social Worker Perspectives in the Occupied Palestinian Territories”
BCSSW contributors: Scott Easton, associate professor, and doctoral candidates Kim Hokanson and Leila Dal Santo