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Alumni Discuss Careers in Trauma

December 19, 2013

On Friday, December 6, students gathered in the Parlor at 1 Washington Square North for an alumni career panel focusing on social work careers in trauma. Kandra Knowles, MSW, ’14, moderated an hour-long discussion with panelists Marisol Lado, MSW ’07, and Sarah Person, MSW ’07. The panelists’ work with two very different populations showcased the universality of trauma and trauma treatment.

Lado, whose husband serves in the military, was drawn to work with veteran populations, and works as a readjustment counseling therapist for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Person works as a psychotherapist at the Safe Horizon Counseling Center, a victim-support agency that specializes in helping traumatized survivors of crime and abuse recover from the effects of these experiences. The majority of her clients are children. Person, who holds an undergraduate degree in psychology and worked for many years as a writer, felt compelled to help after the events of September 11, 2001, and made the shift to social work.

Person defined trauma as “something that happens that is so outside your expected experience that it shatters your experience. Trauma symptoms are actually adaptations to really intolerable pain.” These coping symptoms usually manifest in three distinct forms: avoidance symptoms (the individual does not want to, and will not, think about the trauma), intrusive symptoms (nightmares, flashbacks, and constantly thinking about the trauma), and hyper-vigilance/hyper-arousal (the body cannot come back down from the hyper-aroused state of crisis mode).

Length of treatment is subjective, and varies depending on whether the trauma is discrete, interpersonal, or complex. But both panelists were emphatic about the long treatment trajectory. Person stated that she sees clients for an average of two years, and Lado said that the military does not place a cap on service length for veterans.

Both panelists remarked on the importance of continuing education for social workers, especially in the new and rapidly evolving field of trauma care. As Lado said, “You always have to be reaching out; our field is always changing.” She also espoused the value of reading and researching on a social worker’s specific population of work.

In addition to the necessity of continuing education, the panelists were candid about the importance of recognizing trauma’s impact on the clinician. As Lado described, “When you’re hearing about trauma every day, seeing four to five patients a day, it can become pretty intense. I feel more anxious myself, more often, and everyone in my office has higher stress levels.”

This vicarious trauma (the negative changes that impact social workers over time as they witness clients’ trauma-based suffering) “can alter your worldview,” Person echoed. “It has impacted my global beliefs about the world, my faith, to see such horrors perpetrated…. But having said that, it’s really amazing work to do. I’m lucky to work in a very supportive environment, and it makes all the difference.”

Despite the emotional toll of trauma work, the draw to the field is strong, and the panelists’ passion and enthusiasm for their line of work was tangible and infectious. Person shared her motivation for trauma-based practice: “For patients who have experienced trauma, the trauma affects all areas of their life. To be able to help them heal, regain their lives, and go on without that trauma is really gratifying.”

When Person and Lado attended NYU, the Silver School of Social Work did not offer trauma courses. Their field placements provided a strong introduction to the concept of trauma, and its ubiquity. As Person described it, “I had two outpatient mental health placements through NYU, and what I found was that 80 percent of the people who come to a regular mental health clinic have some kind of trauma. That was when I first began to see how much trauma there is.”

Awareness of trauma, and its pathological impacts, has come to the forefront of social work thinking in recent years, creating new levels of awareness among clinicians and the public. NYU Silver now offers multiple courses devoted to the subject. As Person stated, “This is such an exciting time to work in trauma. There are so many different ways to work with individuals, and such a greater understanding, even from just 10 years ago.”

By Penelope Yates, MSW ‘16

Type: Article