Q&A with Gillian O’Shea Brown, DSW ’21

Gillian O'Shea BrownDr. Gillian O’Shea Brown, DSW ’21, is the author of the book Healing Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Clinician’s Guide (Springer International Publishing, Essential Clinical Social Work Series, 2021), which she wrote during her final year in our DSW Program. The publisher describes the book as “a clinician’s guide to understanding, diagnosing, treating, and healing complex posttraumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD),” a severe form of PTSD which will be included in the International Classification of Diseases 11th Revision in 2022. 

In addition to her writing, Dr. O’Shea Brown maintains a private practice as a psychotherapist, complex trauma specialist, and Certified Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) practitioner and consultant. She was featured in the April 2, 2021 Vogue magazine story How EMDR Helped Me Find Healing in a Most Daunting Year, which detailed how her therapeutic approach to treating complex trauma has evolved in the time of COVID-19. She recently spoke to NYU Silver about her book and her experience in our DSW program.

What motivated you to write this book?

I’ve spent my whole career treating survivors of trauma and I’ve noticed that it’s the pain that people endure from their relationships that causes the deepest wounds. For people that live with C-PTSD, there can be a lot of challenges to creating a safe space in the treatment dyad, so earning their trust, teaching them psychoeducation about their own body, and then using an integrative blend of healing techniques is fundamental to the healing process. This book is, in a way, a handbook for students and clinicians who would like to show up for their clients in a deeper and more meaningful way despite the above challenges. As many trauma clinicians come from a history of trauma themselves, it guides clinicians in checking in with themselves and how they can benefit from supervision, professional boundaries, and self care so that they can have longevity and meaning in their careers. In short this is a book about  facilitating the healing and unburdening of trauma survivors so that they can live life more fully as themselves. 

When you began the DSW Program, did you already have the vision of writing this book?

I always knew that there was a book I wanted to write, but the DSW program helped me to find my voice. It gave me a lot of clarity and it also gave me the time, energy, and focus to be accountable to finish the book. I think if I would have been by myself, this book could have taken me 10 or 20 years. I found that it was very helpful to be surrounded by a group to confer with and really appreciated how they championed me. Thanks to my supportive and wise cohort this made the process of the book much more positive. Writing and academia can sometimes feel very lonely but I never felt alone in this program.

Which faculty did you work most closely on this?

Professor and DSW Program Director Carol Tosone served as the editor. I had finished the DSW program’s publication, presentation, and teaching requirements early and I went into Dr. Tosone’s office one day about a year-and-a-half ago and said “I have a book inside of me and it’s bursting to come out.” And after I told her about it, she invited me to write it for the Essential Clinical Social Work Series, which she edits for Springer. Within a couple of weeks, I had my table of contents and the first three chapters and then when COVID began precipitously unfolding, the writing became my companion and my north star during the pandemic. Given Dr. Tosone pioneered research in the area of shared trauma, it is amazing synchronicity that we were working together on this during a pandemic. I also worked closely with Dr. Denis O’Keefe and Dr. Steven Kuchuck both of whom were so generous with their time, knowledge and insights. I felt very supported throughout the program and really honored to be in the presence of such brilliant minds. 

Is it correct that you also served as a Teaching Assistant for Dr. Tosone’s MSW elective Evidence-Based Practice Models for the Treatment of Trauma for the past three years?

Yes, and this past year I was able to design a three-week mini-module within the course specifically on the treatment of complex trauma. My book guided the mini-module so that was a massive honor and very fulfilling for me. I have also enjoyed teaching Human Behavior in Environment, going back to the roots of attachment based trauma. 

Obviously the program really helped you to write this book, but what compelled you to pursue your DSW in the first place?

When I began the DSW Program, it had been five years since I had published in an academic journal and I felt very disconnected from my writing. In Ireland, where I’m from, it’s mandatory for MSW students to complete a thesis after their dissertation for undergraduate school.  My alma mater University College Cork guided my early interest in writing and there was the opportunity for a select few to be published. I was lucky enough to have completed two qualitative research studies and to find a home for them in the Journal of Critical Social Thinking and the UCC Journal of Applied Social Studies. Also, having a private practice, you miss having that kind of peer network and that community. I came into the program to dedicate three years to exclusively researching complex trauma, and I feel really honored that I got to publish my work in the Journal of Psychohistory, International Body Psychotherapy Journal, as well as a chapter in the book Shared Trauma, Shared Resilience During a Pandemic entitled “Survival through Adaptation: Reflections on Providing Virtual Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy in the Wake of COVID-19.” I hope to continue to write, to publish, and to teach. The DSW Program has opened so many doors for me.

Speaking of doors that the program opened, do you think this book would have been published if you hadn’t earned your DSW?

That’s a very good question. I don’t think I would have written an academic book and it wouldn’t have its depth, theoretical perspective, and critical lens if I hadn't had the accountability and the structure of the DSW program. It’s also generally hard to get your first book deal and to earn that credibility, so to be invited to write it was such a blessing. 

If not for the DSW program, instead of an academic book, I think I would have written a book for the general public. In fact, that’s what I am doing right now. I just signed my second book deal for a guide to living with and healing from complex PTSD. It is important for me to translate all of the academic jargon into an easy to read, accessible guide for the survivors themselves, and to encourage more people not to live in the shame and secrecy that surrounds trauma.

Why did you choose NYU Silver for your DSW?

I liked how forward thinking NYU is, how innovative NYU is. The program’s heavy emphasis on research, publication, and critical thinking was very attractive to me. I also love that it’s such a historic campus with such inclusive thinking. That’s a really beautiful blend of the old and new world. NYU is constantly re-evaluating ’How can we be more inclusive? How can we think more critically? How can we adapt to change to meet the needs of our students?’ And I feel like the morals and values of the university really aligned with my own clinical outlook.

The program structure also worked well for me. For the first two years, I was in the integrative trauma program at the National Institute for the Psychotherapies, where you advance your EMDR practice by taking practice cases and attending weekly group supervision sessions and seminars. Those classes were on Wednesday mornings and the DSW classes were on Wednesday evenings so I was able to maintain a full-time practice on the other days.

How did you learn about the program?

I contacted alumni of the program. Steven Kuchuck was the one that told me that the program would help me to find my voice. And everyone said how much the program helped them expand their knowledge and really refine their expertise. I also spoke with some of the faculty of the program and asked them all the hard questions and I was so impressed with their generosity of time and their emotional support. Everyone I spoke to was so welcoming and warm, it almost felt like it was a home away from home.

Was there anything that surprised you about your experience in our DSW program?

I did not expect the alchemistic way all of the pieces of my journey would come together and synthesize in a book. I actually wasn’t expecting to write the book. I was expecting to publish a few journal articles, get a bit more comfortable with public speaking, and maybe teach. But to have this tangible object to mark my journey so far is very special. I also have found such joy in teaching Human Behavior and being in the presence of wonderful people. This program could not have been designed better around my individual needs and I am eternally grateful to NYU Silver for all it has done for my personal and professional development.