Episode 10 – Research on Modern Student Challenges – A Conversation with Dr. Kalea Benner

Episode 10 – Research on Modern Student Challenges – A Conversation with Dr. Kalea Benner

In this episode, Dr. Kalea Benner joins the conversation with Dr. Jones about her path through Social Work practice & education, students and substance use assessments, and her research on working with “Exhausted, Stressed-out and Disengaged” students.


Dr. Kalea Benner is the director of undergraduate studies at the College of Social Work, University of Kentucky since 2015. Previously part of the school of Social Work at the University of Missouri from 2001 – 2015. She is an LCSW (Missouri) and previously practiced there. You can find more about Dr. Benner and her research here: https://socialwork.uky.edu/dr-kalea-benner/


Integrated Behavioral Health (IBH) at UK College of Social Work

More about SBIRT

The A-to-Z Self-Care Handbook for Social Workers and Other Helping Profession by Dr. Jay Miller

Transcripts are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription and may contain errors. Please check the full audio podcast in context before quoting in print.

Begin Transcript:

Dr. Jones: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to the social work Conversations podcast produced by the University of Kentucky College of Social Work. My name is Blake Jones. Here we explore the intersection of social work research, practice and education. Our goal is to showcase the amazing people associated with our college and to give our listeners practical tools that they can use to change the world.

Dr. Jones: [00:00:25] I’m joined today by Dr. Kalea Benner who is the director of undergraduate studies here at our UK College of Social Work. Thanks for joining me today.

Dr. Benner: [00:00:34] Thank you I appreciate the opportunity.

Dr. Jones: [00:00:36] It’s really good to see you and thank you for taking the time. I know that you just came out of class you’ve had a really busy day and a really busy week and a really busy semester so I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. I just kind of wanted to get to know you a little bit better today we know each other some but I’m excited to learn about what brought you to the University of Kentucky. You are a Missourian? Am I saying that correctly.

Dr. Benner: [00:01:04] Yes.

Dr. Jones: [00:01:04] OK. Born and raised there?

Dr. Benner: [00:01:06] Born and raised.

Dr. Jones: [00:01:07] And went to school at all levels at the University of Missouri.

Dr. Benner: [00:01:11] Yes I did.

Dr. Jones: [00:01:12] Tell us a little bit about your studies there and what brought you to UK.

Dr. Benner: [00:01:16] Ok so I actually went to Missouri as an undergraduate and found social work a little bit later probably my academic career. I had been recommended by a friend. Check it out check it out. Check it out. And I for whatever reason didn’t and I think had a lot of preconceived notions but once I did check it out I completely utterly fell in love with social work. I tell my students that social work is not something that you do it’s who you are. It’s that orientation to life and I firmly believe that. So I was really glad to find it whenever I was there I was able to do my undergraduate and then I actually received a stipend for child welfare to do my master’s as well. I from there went into practice and licensed clinical social worker from the state of Missouri. And whenever I was in practice most of my practice was with child welfare and mental health intersects with mental health. And I had enough events that just made me question policy, made me just know that as much as I felt that I knew there was still so much more I didn’t now. So I made that commitment to return to get my Ph.D..

Dr. Jones: [00:02:25] Was that hard for you to leave your practice? Because you know I’m a practitioner too. It’s one of the things I really struggled with when I started my doctor it was you know I loved being a therapist so much and I really felt like I might have to change my brain orientation a little bit which is true but what was that hard for you to leave your practice?

Dr. Benner: [00:02:48] I think that it really was harder than I thought at the time the decision that I made to my practice was to actually go into the University of Missouri as a clinical faculty member because I knew that that would help me with my tuition. And that was one of the conditions of my employment that I wanted to be able to take actual classes and complete my degree there. And I wanted to make sure that the administration was supportive of that which they were which was very fortunate for me. But prior to that I had been an adjunct at another university. And so I taught for a couple semesters there and that that. That was going to be a good career path for me for a good next step. I’m still not sure where I’m going to end up but I feel like I’ve made some really good steps along the way. But leaving practice was very hard. And I think a part of me thought I might do like what you’ve done and balance it and have a little bit of. Maybe practice still mixed with education and for that kind of life. Laughed at me and said I don’t think you have time for that. I ended up in my doctoral program having a child and then ended up with the fourth child. And somewhere along the line practice maybe lost its value in terms of my time. But it’s certainly something that I the experiences I’ve had with my clients and been they’re just gifts to me every day. There are still clients that I think about that I treasure that are still in my heart that I hope are doing really well. So that practice experience that I had has really given me so many things beyond that just that time with the client.

Dr. Jones: [00:04:27] Yeah I’ve thought a lot about that and I think that for me it enlivens my teaching to bring my clients to my students and to really think about them and talk about them. And it brings the conceptual to life for me for me so I really appreciate that. I love what you say about Social work is something that you are a social worker or something that you are. I’ve talked with a number of students who have said that to me and they sort of come to that place in their life where they just sort of knew they had to do social work. Was it that stark for you?

Dr. Benner: [00:05:05] I think that it probably was the path that I was on at the time wasn’t fulfilling to me. But once I got into the social work program everything was fulfilling about it. And I think that doesn’t mean that there’s not challenges but it is important to find your niche in social work. Certainly giving me that opportunity.

Dr. Jones: [00:05:24] Yeah well I know that one of your areas of research and interest is in the idea of students doing substance misuse assessments. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you got into that why is that so important for social work students to know how to do that?

Dr. Benner: [00:05:45] Well one of the things that I knew from my own practice was that it’s extremely difficult to ask people about their substance use and a lot of times we think tend to think of that as private business it’s nothing for us to get involved in we don’t criticize our friends use so why would we look at anybody else’s use too. So those are hard conversations to have. We don’t talk to friends we don’t talk to family members typically about what they’re using how much they’re using when it’s occurring etc.. So there’s nothing intuitive about asking about substance misuse or substance use period. So one of the things that I knew was my in my own practice as I struggled with asking those questions and then once I asked once I got the words out in whatever way I did it I struggled with what do I do with that information how do I respond How do I react how do I know if it’s honest and truthful or not. So one of the things that was important to me is that we train social workers to be effective competent professionals in one aspect of that has to be in the area of assessing for substance misuse.

Dr. Jones: [00:06:50] A lot of our students we have a grant here the IBH Grant (integrated behavioral health grant) that that really you know our students are working in primary care clinics hospitals and so it seems like that’s a good kind of a contemporary model of serving patients and clients and that is to have things really integrated so that so that you know our social work students are in there. They’re assessing they’re working with a physician to really help that patient in a holistic way.

Dr. Benner: [00:07:27] Absolutely. And really this SBIRT ( screening brief intervention referral of treatment) model is really a piece of that IBH because it was originally designed for physicians to implement screening because we typically have people come in to see physicians but not necessarily see social workers or trained professionals to help with that. Since the inception with physicians it’s been integrated with social curriculum as well as other professionals like nursing and health care professionals. But that holistic piece we can’t help a person physically get better if substance misuse is an issue, if mental health is an issue and it’s also hard to change use if you know you’re affected by that health aspect or a physical health aspect too. So it really is a piece of seeing that person holistically and trying to adapt and meet all needs.

Dr. Jones: [00:08:15] Yeah that’s great. So we have that grant for a few more years that sounds like?

Dr. Benner: [00:08:21] So IBH Karen Badger is the PI on that. And she just was awarded a new one for three years and then the SBIRT grant we have one more year.

Dr. Jones: [00:08:30] That’s great. Yeah I know. I guess it was maybe last semester or last year you and I did some work where our students were doing some interviews of some of our theater students here at UK and I just found that so fascinating that theater students were really into it and our and our social work students were into it. I love the collaboration between colleges and departments.

Dr. Benner: [00:08:56] And that’s been really fun too. It’s an it’s a fun piece of that training because in social work we tend to use each other – we use our colleagues to interview or do those assessments with our to practice engagement skills and that’s fine. And it’s a good practice but when you add the elements of somebody from another discipline that you don’t know at all it makes it seem even more real more like a client situation so it brings it just a step closer to what practice might actually be like.

Dr. Jones: [00:09:23] Yeah I want to switch gears for just a second because you are you know you are a multifaceted researcher and faculty member. One of your other areas is student – one of your jobs is kind of looking at student retention and and more broadly students self care and the idea of student self compassion. And I must say that I really hadn’t thought much about that. So you and I were talking a little bit about that. Can you talk about that area of research for you Why is it important for students to practice self care and what’s the difference between self care self compassion.

Dr. Benner: [00:10:04] So really we have self care as a buzz word in social work. It’s one of my colleagues Dr. Jay Miller. It’s really an area of interest for him he’s published on the subject as well as written a book. And so it was really interesting to work collaboratively with Dr. Miller and see where some of his influences are coming from on self care in our curriculum we actually added a class A one hour class on self care which is taught by Jay. But it’s somewhat infused in our curriculum. You know we can say that it is but the reality of it is students need that message. And the more they get the message the better it is. We tend to have students know what self care is but we don’t always have students know how to go about self care. We can articulate this is good for me but then articulating how I do it is very different. The connection with compassion is really interesting and that again comes from some of that work that is done but self compassion is the thought that we want to treat ourselves with the ability and the empathy and the engagement that we might treat somebody else. So the things that I might judge myself on. I want to make sure I’m not overly harsh or overly critical or judging differently than if I were talking to somebody else who’s in the same situation. It’s connected to self care because the thought is, the premise is, the higher levels of self compassion I have the more likely I am to practice self care and put myself in those situations to be successful because I understand what my needs are.

Dr. Jones: [00:11:36] What gets in the way of self care for students?

Dr. Benner: [00:11:40] Overwhelmingly we hear from students they just don’t have time. I think that you know my generation was certainly busy whenever I was in school. But students these days are typically working and they’re not just working but they’re working significant hours. We know that those the more employment hours we have the less engaged a student actually is for undergraduates in particular. Not only are they going to class in the day when they’re working at night. So sleep suffers as well. It’s really hard to think about doing something for me when I’m exhausted. And I all I want to do is catch a nap and I think that that’s common for some of our students to kind of be torn between that should I really do these readings when I don’t have to do them tomorrow. Should I catch just now which I really need to do should I go for a run trying to balance life is challenging at any time. And it’s no different for our students.

Dr. Jones: [00:12:35] Yeah right. I think that phenomenon of so many of them working full time jobs and trying to get their graduate degree and I teach grad students and so getting your grad degree at night. And I think the online portion of our program has helped somewhat that certainly. But but still you know I’ve I’ve had students come into class who have worked all day. You know eight or nine hours driven another hour or two to get here. And I kind of struggle with you know. How can I connect with the person who is just absolutely mentally exhausted.

Dr. Benner: [00:13:12] Right.

Dr. Jones: [00:13:12] And it’s not like they’ve just sort of sat at a desk and you know just you know typed some things or something all day they have have worked with child abuse child abuse case.

Dr. Benner: [00:13:23] Mentally draining as well as physically.

Dr. Jones: [00:13:26] Yeah. So. So it’s just it’s tough. And I think a lot of it comes down to time management too. Right. And just trying to cram everything in.

Dr. Benner: [00:13:38] I think the bottom line is we’re asking students to prioritize education because it’s important. But at the same time we’re asking them to prioritize into a life that already has priorities and many of our grad students are working as are many of our undergraduates do too but then they also have families. And so you can’t just not work right. So then you also then have families and kids that she want to spend time with and then that decision is made to go to class or do I go have dinner with my family and tuck my baby in bed or whatever that is. It’s a really it’s a challenge I think and self care suffers whenever we can’t balance our time for those priorities in her life.

Dr. Jones: [00:14:17] Yeah. Kalea, I know that you have a new article coming out in publication. I wonder if you could tell us the name of the article and you have a co-author of your article as well.

Dr. Benner: [00:14:31] Right. So it’s in press with the Journal of Social Work Education and the name of it is “Exhausted, Stressed-out and Disengaged does burnout start in the classroom for social work students.” It’s coauthored with Angela Curl she’s at the University of Miami in Ohio. And I’ve enjoyed working with her on that and one of the needs that we saw was that students were burnt out before they ever became social work practitioners. And so we wanted to kind of document what some of that phenomenon was what was leading to this sense of burnout for students before they ever left the classroom.

Dr. Jones: [00:15:05] So tell me a little bit about the findings of that article what did you find.

Dr. Benner: [00:15:08] So one of the things that I’ve certainly seen back whenever I was practicing and I was supervising students in field. But even as a social work educators that students are coming into the classroom and some are very engaged but many just not and what I was noticing as I was talking to students and advising they’ve got a lot going on. So one of the things that I wanted to know is a social work administrator was. What are students dealing with. What else did they have on their plate. And overwhelmingly we heard students are stressed out exhausted and disengaged and it’s not so much the fact that the program is not effective because this was students across all programs. But also then across multiple universities are saying the same thing. So they’re coming into the classroom thinking about all their other obligations that they have. Students aren’t just students these days. And maybe they never were. But it’s taking a toll on them that’s resulting in loss of sleep that’s resulting in anxiety. Just reading these comments from students was creating anxiety for me because I could just feel how overwhelming it could be. That may not be the average student but certainly it was enough and our response rate that it has us concerned.

Dr. Jones: [00:16:25] I think it seems college is different now. You know I think you and I are around the same age maybe and when know I went to Berea College which is a tiny little liberal arts college in Kentucky and I lived there we weren’t allowed to have cars and you know we we worked it was part of paying our tuition at Berea. And so it was like this is sort of an insular world of you know everything was contained right there and it was it was such a wonderful experience. But I kind of hear what you’re saying that our students are – they’re working they’re trying to have a social life. They’re doing all they are and involved in all of these different activities. And so college may not be it’s not their only priority in their life.

Dr. Benner: [00:17:08] Sure it’s not. And even with working sometimes is still not sufficient to pay the debt. You know we’re really fortunate. One of the reasons that I came to UK was all the resources and the emphasis on the people here – I absolutely love it. But what we’re finding is even as students are working they’re still going into debt for that college degree and that’s of particular concern for our social students who need to be able to understand that debt has to be managed after college too. But UK has a financial literacy office which is an extremely important tool they have an app that college students can use it to see that if I take out thirty thousand dollars in loan versus twenty eight thousand dollars and what that looks like in terms of payment payback time etc. But I think that’s an important piece of education that maybe didn’t used to be there that that awareness or understanding that students have to have about what paying for college right now means for their future.

Dr. Jones: [00:18:07] And what would you tell faculty members or I know that that you know we have a number of therapists who listened to this podcast if they’re working with students who are stressed out burned out disengaged. What advice do you give them about working with students?

Dr. Benner: [00:18:26] So I really think that that’s where my interest in self care came from is feeling like students were already burnt out. It was such a phenomenon in our profession to consider burn out. But then what I was seeing is that before students even became professional social workers there is a high level of burnout that already exists. And our data shows that that is true. Whenever we look at how to deal with that we have to understand that students have to have their priorities and while I as an academic person might want a student to prioritize college sometimes it’s got sheared priorities, right? That role conflict is what results in anxiety for a lot of students because they know they need to be committing to this role of a student but they need to be you know contributing to the role of the employee as well and for some it’s family members too. That creates a tremendous role conflict. So I think the important thing is understanding what’s truly the most important and how did that balance across whatever those most important roles might be.

Dr. Jones: [00:19:33] So now I’m going to get real with you…

Dr. Benner: [00:19:35] Oh gosh okay let’s go!

Dr. Jones: [00:19:39] I want to ask you the self care question because I think you know as as researchers and as people that sort of think about this kind of stuff that’s one thing but for to really practice it in our own lives it’s hard sometimes. I know that you have kids I have kids who both have you know busy jobs. What are what are the challenges that you see as a faculty member. In practicing this idea of self care and what do you do to take care of yourself?

Dr. Benner: [00:20:09] So I think that my biggest challenge is time and as sad as it sounds I have to sometimes schedule time to make sure that I take it because otherwise it can just get lost with everything else going on. Some of the things that are most for me is being outside and enjoying nature is one of the things that brought me to Kentucky was everything that’s here in terms of the outdoors. And so I really love that. So my one of my favorite things to do is find a hike and then plan it out and let’s go do it. So that’s fun you’re within a couple hours of some of the most beautiful scenery in the United States and it’s not as accessible. You know I would like because sometimes it takes a whole afternoon, right? but that’s very therapeutic for me in being able to spend time outside. And typically then that’s with my family as well. So getting real I think the biggest challenge is really making sure that I budget that time and that I don’t just leave it up to fate because if that happens it’s it’s not going to happen for me.

Dr. Jones: [00:21:14] Yeah I really try to exercise. I believe in the importance of exercise but I know that if I don’t do it in the morning I will come up with every excuse not to get out. I mean it just it’s like clockwork I can’t I just like I can do it but I won’t do if it’s later in the afternoon.

Dr. Benner: [00:21:31] It’s like your students you describe people are tired by the end of the day. It’s hard to find energy for things.

Dr. Jones: [00:21:36] Absolutely. Kalea, What are your – you are the Director of Undergraduate Studies here in our college – What are some of your goals for that position for college what do you dream and hope about for our students or undergraduate students.

Dr. Benner: [00:21:52] So I love that question so I have a lot of dreams and goals. I think we have wonderful students here we also have a wonderful college faculty who are extremely supportive of students. I really think that undergraduate Social Work Education is an important piece of the social work education process. I know that the Masters or the MSW is really the it’s a terminal degree in social work so it’s really what’s valued. But I do think that an undergraduate Social Work Education is an important piece of that. And one of the reasons why I think it is important is because it gives students that opportunity for exposure. By the time people are coming back for their masters they’re fairly well set and thinking of here’s what I want to do. But if you get an undergraduate student it’s just wide open. I just yesterday talked to a student who was telling me about all the things she said she wouldn’t want to do in social work. Now she wants to do and that’s a pretty cool statement. That’s what life should be about. That’s what the college experience should be about learning and growing and exposing and and having opportunities to do things maybe you thought wouldn’t even be things you were interested in doing before. I think our college also has an important role to play on this campus. I think that’s an important piece that my professional goals too. I’d like to have us be seen as a college that is invested and cares and works well with students. I think that we do have that vision already on campus. One of the things I really enjoyed being able to do since I came here is be more involved in the social justice programming on campus. I think that’s an important leadership role that our college has to participate in as well. UK has a number of collaborative partners who are very invested in that as well. And I am still learning who those are. But I’ve certainly enjoyed that process and look forward to that growth for me as well.

Dr. Jones: [00:23:49] That’s great. Well I just want to thank you for again spending your time with me today I really appreciate you and your friendship and your – You know your support of this podcast and then just star students I’ve heard really good. You know how we listen sometimes to house to talk about other faculty members and once I hear them talk about Dr. Benner did this and that and it’s always good things that you know they know that you care about them and I think I think in some larger colleges that you know students can get lost so I just appreciate that kind of attention that you pay to our students and that care that you show for them.

Dr. Benner: [00:24:30] Well thank you. Thanks for having me on. Good to see you.

Dr. Jones: [00:24:35] Thank you. You’ve been listening to the social work conversations podcast. Thanks for joining us. And now let’s move this conversation into action.

Dr. Jones: [00:24:47] This production is made possible by the support of the University of Kentucky College of Social Work, Interim Dean Ann Vail and all the faculty and staff who support researching contemporary social problems and prepare students for the social work profession. Hosted by Dr. Blake Jones produced by Jason Johnston. With thanks to our Web master, Jordan Johnson music by Billy McLaughlin. To find out more about the UK colleges social work and this podcast visit socialwork.uky.edu/podcast