Examining Military Behavioral Health with Dr. Chris Flaherty

The Military Behavioral Health Lab (MBH) is a unique lab focused on generating empirical knowledge and testing clinical interventions to address mental health and wellness issues that affect active-duty, reserve, and veteran military populations and their families. The lab builds on CoSW’s considerable expertise in working with military populations. In addition to research and outreach, MBH educates social work students about career opportunities within the Department of Defense (DoD) and Veterans Administration (VA), while training them to be the best candidates for those jobs.

Mentoring Foster Parents with Jeff Damron and Tamikia Dumas

Imagine you’re a new foster parent or kinship caregiver, and if you’re being honest, it’s nerve-wracking. No matter how prepared you are, once a child walks into your home, it can feel overwhelming. You ultimately need someone who understands; just ask Jenny Knecht.

“Often, foster parents feel alone. They have questions and fears and don’t know who to turn to.” Knecht understands, because she began her foster care journey nearly 10 years ago. Today, she is a mom of five. Three of her children are adopted, and Knecht is not ashamed to admit, being a caregiver is challenging.

“The need for foster parents is so great and we cannot afford to lose good families for reasons that can be avoided, such as providing support,” Knecht continued. “Even those that have experience with parenting will face challenges in their foster care journey. No one can go through this process alone. Not successfully.”

Undoubtedly, being a foster or kinship parent can be demanding. Research indicates that caregivers often struggle to find support. Moreover, the number of children entering foster care in the Commonwealth continues to increase. In response to these challenges, the College of Social Work Training Resource Center (TRC) has expanded its Foster Parent Mentor Program. 

In existence for more than 20 years, the Foster Parent Mentor Program specializes in one-on-one, intensive coaching relationships for newly approved foster parents and kinship care providers. Mentees receive encouragement, skill reinforcement, and information on parenting strategies unique to providing out-of-home care. The program matches newly approved foster parents (mentees) with veteran foster parents (mentors) to provide hands on assistance with application of skills learned during training, help identifying resources, providing emotional support, and sharing practical parenting strategies.

Jeff Damron and Tamikia Dumas are Program Coordinators for the program and administer all aspects of the program statewide. From recruiting and training new mentors to helping facilitate the perfect match of mentor and mentee, Damron and Dumas ensure foster and kinship families are receiving the support they need to be successful in their foster care journey. 

“Peer mentoring is an innovative approach to providing support to foster and kinship caregivers across the state. What’s more is that the program is specifically designed to reach caregivers that night not otherwise be served,” said College of Social Work Dean Jay Miller. “Given the rising numbers of youth in out-of-home care, programs like the Foster Parent Mentor Program will be integral to ensuring the well-being of children and families. The program is an initiative rooted in a common purpose; aimed at a common good; and, for the Commonwealth.”

“I have seen families isolate themselves and then fail in their journey. With added supports, we can make sure our families feel supported and get their questions answered,” Knecht, added. “Simply connecting with others that are going through the same things can often fill a void and rejuvenate foster parents, so they are able to continue positively impacting the lives of children.”

University 1st in Kentucky to Launch Online Doctorate of Social Work degree

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 1, 2020) — It’s a daunting, but necessary task – serving the most vulnerable members of our community. In a world filled with social injustices and inequality, individuals, families, groups, and communities need continued support, advocacy, and professional services.  

Social workers provide critically important services aimed at improving community safety and wellbeing. The hope is, that with every challenge – whether it’s related to abuse, addiction, disability, discrimination, poverty, or others — there’s a social worker to help address that challenge. 

Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

There’s a critical shortage of social workers across the country — including right here in the Commonwealth. In fact, a recent study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found a 16% increase in the need for social workers nationwide since 2016. Of particular need, are social work practitioners with advanced training and education. The College of Social Work (CoSW) at the University of Kentucky is committed to meeting that need.  

With the well-being of Kentuckians in mind, the CoSW is launching an online Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) program.  

The first of its kind in the state, the program will successfully prepare students for advanced social work practice, clinical, research, administrative leadership and executive roles. The DSW program is designed to prepare students to creatively address society’s most complex social issues. 

According to Jay Miller, dean of the CoSW, the program could not come at a more pressing time. “We recognize that as the social challenges become increasingly complex, so too must our response,” he explained. “For now, that response is the DSW program.”

The growth in child abuse and neglect cases, the devastating opioid epidemic, complex mental health issues, and shifting regulatory dynamics are overwhelming social workers with complicated caseloads. 

In an effort to lessen the burden, the DSW program will provide social work practitioners the opportunity to build upon their skills by receiving specialized training in one of three areas: administrative leadership, advanced clinical practice, or military behavioral health.

In a continued effort to make UK programs accessible and attainable, the DSW is fully online and can be completed in two years (full time). There are also part-time options available. 

“This program was conceptualized with practitioners in mind,” Natalie Pope, director of CoSW doctoral programs, said. “Our College has made significant investments in educational technology — which ensures that we can offer an academically rigorous educational experience in a flexible and efficient format.” 

Ultimately, graduates of the program will be positioned to advance their careers and become transformational leaders within the profession.   

Social workers play a prominent role in improving the lives of those who need it most.

With shortages expected to worsen over the next decade, Miller hopes the CoSW’s cutting-edge approach will transform communities and the lives of those who call those communities home.

“The DSW program will fundamentally improve the social work practice and academic landscape in Kentucky and beyond. It will afford social work practitioners an advanced career trajectory and make the profession more desirable for those exploring helping profession disciplines,” he explained. “The program will draw people to social work and address current practice and workforce needs.”   

The first DSW cohort will start Fall 2020. The program will begin accepting applications on February 15, 2020. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the program, call (859) 257-6650, text “DSW” to 31996, or email DSW@uky.edu.

Nada Shalash

Nada Shalash

Nada Shalash graduated from the University of Kentucky College of Social Work in May 2019. While at UK, she earned her Master’s in Clinical Social Work. Nada maintained a 4.0 throughout her entire graduate degree and received the Social Work Student of the Year award. Nada now lives in Chicago, IL., working for a community psychological and spiritual wellness center called the Khalil Center, a non-profit that serves the Muslim community in the Chicagoland area. She also provides individual therapy for adolescents and adults.

Who, if anyone, was instrumental in your success here at the CoSW?

Every semester I had professors that inspired me more than they know and really challenged me to think critically, and I really appreciated it. These professors made me want to become the best social worker I possibly could. Some of these professors include Dr. Biermann, Dr. Lawrence, and Dr. Barnhart. My supervisors Martha Parks and Curtis Montague, at my Integrated Behavioral Health practicum, fostered a learning environment where I was encouraged to try new things and given opportunities to step outside my comfort zone. Dean Miller, who was a professor in the CoSW at the time, welcomed me into the world of social work research and provided me with several opportunities to gain experience. My cohort was also close-knit, and that helped a great deal. My classmates made me laugh frequently, and we developed a bond over the two years. Outside of my professional network, my friends and family were my biggest supporters in helping me practice self-care and encouraging me every step of the way.

What attracted you to the CoSW program? What was your motivation to pursue a degree in this field?

I knew a few people that attended UK CoSW and encouraged me to look into the program. I was also interested in the Integrated Behavioral Health program that UK CoSW offered. My primary motivation in pursuing a social work degree was an interest in the mental health field. Growing up as a Muslim Arab American, there was little to no representation of mental health professionals my friends or I felt like we could relate to. Not only that, but mental health was very stigmatized and against cultural practices. The stigma is decreasing, and therapy is more widely encouraged, especially when individuals from the community know they can see someone of similar background. I really wanted to fill that gap in the community, and that’s what I hope to continue to do. The flexibility an MSW offers students after graduating is something that made me pick this degree over other mental health-related degrees. Further, I loved the social justice aspect of social work. Social work prepares you to advocate for yourself and others. 

How did your time as a student here at CoSW prepare you for your future?

The classes and practicum training offered at UK were broad, and I liked that because it allowed me to explore several aspects of social work rather than being forced to focus on a single population/area. The practicum opportunities provided me with experience.

How has life been since graduating?

Life has been great! The adjustment after graduating can be difficult, but every new beginning has its challenges. You go from being a full-time student to a professional applying for jobs! After graduating, I got married, and my husband and I moved to Chicago for better career opportunities. It has been fun living in a new city and exploring all that it has to offer. 

What are you currently doing, work-wise? 

I currently work for a community psychological and spiritual wellness center called the Khalil Center. It’s a non-profit that serves the Muslim community in the Chicagoland area, and the organization has several other branches across North America. I provide individual therapy for adolescents and adults. Soon I will begin to offer a therapy group for middle and high schoolers that focus on body image and self-esteem. I also work for a private practice called E.M. Branch and Associates that serves adults dealing with a range of issues. In my free time, I love to workout and cook different types of foods. 

How does it feel to be a CoSW Alumna?

It feels good to be an alumna! I’ve loved watching the CoSW make the changes they’ve made and continue to improve to best meet the needs of students. This may be hard for some students to believe, but I miss being a student sometimes. Although I consider myself a lifelong learner, there’s something special about being a student. You have the flexibility to challenge yourself without the liability you do practicing on your own, and one of your primary responsibilities is to soak in the information being taught to you. 

Jamyle Cannon

Jamyle Cannon

It’s a weeknight in Chicago. The city streets and sidewalks are crowded — filled with the hustle and bustle of people making their way home for the evening.

How do you define home?

For some, it’s a lavish penthouse with a spectacular view. For others, it’s a much smaller, overpriced apartment. But for hundreds of the city’s at-risk youth, the meaning of home is far less traditional.

In a boxing club on Homan Avenue is where these teens feel safe.

There’s a story behind every dodge, duck, bob and weave — a journey filled with more tribulations than triumphs. At the front of the class is a young man who’s attempting to take the fate of Chicago’s most vulnerable adolescents into his own hands.

He too has a story.

“There were times when the lights would be turned off,” Jamyle Cannon recalled. “To think, we were so poor we don’t deserve water or electricity — that’s an experience that stands out about my childhood.”

Cannon vividly remembers the challenges that came with growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Lexington. At a young age, he knew what it meant to struggle. Cannon often felt helpless as his family battled poverty and addiction. Those struggles made him question his place in this big world, and that uncertainty — about who he was and where he belonged — lead to angst.

“I definitely had anger issues.”

In every sense of the word, Cannon felt like he had to fight — for himself and his family. He refused to let unfairness and inequality knock him down. “Fighting is really a part of me. I knew how to behave in school and in front of adults, but I was fighting when I was away from those influences.”

Cannon followed his fists down a rocky road. At the age of 12, he had to undergo court ordered anger management classes after getting arrested for a fight.

But there was one person whose positive influence outweighed Cannon’s urge to fight for all the wrong reasons. “The spirit of the grind — the spirit of the hustle that my mom exhibited is a staple of my upbringing.”

Cannon’s mother single-handedly raised him and his three siblings. There were many days she would ride the bus with them to school, and when there wasn’t enough fare left for herself, she would walk to work. If that wasn’t tiring enough, Cannon’s mother would also walk to her college classes.

With each step, she was walking toward a new path — a life that would inspire her children to do more, to be more.

When Cannon was 14, his mother graduated from the University of Kentucky. And the lights were never turned off again.

“When she graduated with a degree in social work, I watched our lives change almost immediately,” he continued. “I wanted to follow in her footsteps, and I wanted to continue that upward trajectory.”

Briana Sowers

Briana Sowers

For Briana Sowers, a College of Social Work student, it came in the form of supportive and empowering faculty and staff.

“Every professor has been great, I’ve never met a faculty or staff member I haven’t liked,” Sowers said.

Early on, Sowers knew she had found her place with a dedicated group of faculty and staff committed to student success. Initially a psychology major, Sowers decided after a few courses that she wanted to help others, just not in a therapy setting. 

“I was having a crisis when I was thinking about not wanting to be in psychology, and I used a major locator where you put in your interests, and it pops out majors based on that. Social work was one of those,” Sowers said. “After reading the program, I thought it just made sense to me that that is what I was meant to do.”

Unfortunately, Sowers had missed the deadline to apply for the program. However, she messaged Dr. Kalea Benner, Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs, who allowed her to take a few introductory courses. 

Dr. Benner was only the first of faces Sowers would meet that made a difference in her college experience. 

Before entering the program, Sowers became a student ambassador for the College of Social Work. It was there she met Lindsey Ferguson, director of recruitment. 

Traveling around the state, Sowers was able to introduce potential students to the wonders and opportunities that the CoSW provides. 

“Lyndsey was so amazing,” Sowers said. “She just made everything so much more fun.”

During her studies in the program, Sowers met more faculty and staff who made a lasting impacting on her college experience. Among them were Josh Nadzam, Diane Loeffler, and Sarabeth Biermann.

Biermann, who was given the Class of 2019 Faculty Special Recognition award, intimidated Sowers at first. 

“At first, she is a little intimidating, seeing such a really strong, confident, woman teaching. But you see through her teaching how confident she is in us,” Sowers said. “She’s so receptive to what we tell her, she’s very personable, and you don’t always see that. She doesn’t play favorites, and she’s always fair. She’s exactly the type of person I want to be, the type teacher of I want to be, and the type of social worker I want to be.”

Now, Biermann holds a special place in Sowers’ life as her mentor and someone who, like the many others she has met along the way, will always be in her corner.

In addition to her studies, Sowers has participated in many programs and extracurriculars. Last year, while many spent spring break at the beach, Sowers spent hers in Ashland, volunteering at Safe Harbor, an emergency shelter and advocacy center. Additionally, Sowers was a member turned facilitator in the Empowering Women’s Leadership Program. And she recently went early alumni in her sorority Kappa Beta Gamma.

Once Sowers receives her diploma, her journey into higher education won’t stop there. She’s already applied to several master’s programs, including one in her home state of Texas. Sowers hopes to work in administrative policy, grant administration, or being an executive director of a shelter program. Any option is possible, she said, since her time at the CoSW has prepared her for anything that will come her way.

“After these three and a half years, I feel confident in the person I am. I know, without a doubt, social work is for me,” Sowers said. “I know I’m going to be secure in my future. Social work keeps you on your toes and I feel prepared, and ready, to get on my feet.”

Anna Villarreal

Anna Villarreal

Anna Villarreal, who started as a finance and economics major at the University of Kentucky, realized three years into her program that she wanted to shift gears. 

“I was raised with my mom always telling us we had to go to college, but we had to go to college for something that made money. I’m from a low-income background, and a lot of times, lights would go off, or we didn’t have money for food. It was always a financial struggle, so she wanted us to go to college to do something that would allow us to be financially stable on our own,” Villarreal said.

Choosing finance and economics was her way of meeting that requirement. But Villarreal knew she wanted to be able to help others. The only way she saw that happening with her current major was by making enough money to give back to those in need. 

During her time as a finance and economics major, Villarreal met a sorority sister who was majoring in social work and introduced her to the program. Recognizing this as a chance to make an impact, Villarreal took a leap of faith and switched her career path to social work. 

“Switching majors was the hardest thing I had to do. I was beating myself up over it; I thought I wasn’t smart, I didn’t think I could do it,” she said.

Initially, she started in the Latina Student Union and later became president of the student organization. However, she soon found herself in Zeta Phi Beta, Incorporated — a historically black sorority on campus.

“Zeta caters to black communities because it is a marginalized community. We focus on service projects for the community, and we also do programming here on campus for black students,” Villarreal explained. “We exist solely to help give back to our communities because the majority of these organizations were founded on historically black campuses.”

As one of seven historically African American fraternities and sororities on campus, Villarreal works hard to make sure the work the Zeta’s are doing stands out.

Villarreal created a mentorship program before joining the Zeta’s and used her position within the sorority to expand it. Villarreal also worked on the Social Justice series, an ongoing project she had a hand in initiating.

“This semester is going to be about financial literacy and how it correlates to generational wealth within black communities, Villarreal said. “Another one is representation in positions of power, so like lawyers, doctors and judges.”

In addition, Villarreal is passionate about engagement and tries to stay knowledgeable about current issues by attending meetings for a handful of student organizations, including her sorority, Black Student Union, Minority Business Professionals, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Muslim Student Association and the Indian Student Association.

“Considering my passions and who I am as an individual, the field of social work fits me perfectly. Social work utilizes my skills and talents while creating a welcoming environment that has given me the resources to succeed academically and professionally.”

With graduation on the horizon, Villarreal is ready to join the workforce. Through the Public Child Welfare Certification Program, Villarreal has been able to gain invaluable experience. 

And after walking across the stage at Rupp Arena on December 20, Villarreal gets to step into her first job with one of the KY’s Children and Family Services local offices.

“Since I wanted to do something with legislation, I thought child welfare would be a good fit since it deals a lot of policy, but it’s also job security,” Villarreal said. “They are literally training us how to get these jobs. It’s a great partnership with the cabinet and social work program. I don’t have to worry about where I’m going to go after graduation.”

Villarreal plans to continue her education and pursue a master’s degree in social work. The road doesn’t stop there, though. Villarreal also has hopes to maybe one day get a law degree. Fitting in with her ambitious personality, her goal is to enact change in the child welfare system through policy ad reform in legislation.

Her advice to fellow students is simple: don’t give up.

“I would tell them that it’s going to get hard, you’re going to be tired, you’re going to wanna give up. But hard work yields success, and without success, you can’t make an impact,” Villarreal said. “So, push through, keep pushing through, because it will all pay off.”

Mission Persistent: New Lab Endeavor Explores Behavioral Health and the Military

Every day, men and women across the nation choose to serve ⁠— together, they vow to protect our freedom at any cost. This selfless act is not lost upon Chris Flaherty, who serves as director of the new Military Behavioral Health Lab in the UK College of Social Work (CoSW).

“This morning I awoke a free person in a free country,” he said. “Someone gave their life to make this possible. I try to remind myself of this often.”

Flaherty, who is also an associate professor, is acutely aware of the unique challenges service members and military families face. He was fresh out of high school when he joined the U.S. Air Force in 1985.

“When I enlisted, I was given a large binder with dozens of job descriptions and told to choose my top preferences. I saw a description for mental health technician and chose it.”

A job that started by happenstance would turn into a 20-year career.

Upon enlisting, Flaherty trained to become a mental health technician at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. For seven years, he worked hand-in-hand with psychologists and psychiatrists to provide behavioral health care services to military members and their loved ones.

That’s when he learned the military population often puts service before self — which can be both a strength and a weakness.

“Stigma surrounding behavioral health treatment is a big barrier, both in civilian and military populations,” Flaherty explained. “Service members are especially reluctant to seek treatment due to concerns about the impact upon career progression, and also because of cultural factors inherent in the military, such as stoicism, self-reliance, duty to others and self-sacrifice.”

In 1992, Flaherty completed graduate studies in social work and was commissioned as a clinical social work officer — a title he would hold until retiring in 2005. That same year, he joined the faculty in the CoSW.

“As a social work officer, I had the opportunity to work with these patriots and to appreciate the sacrifices they make every day,” Flaherty said. “The Department of Defense (DoD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) offer a robust array of behavioral health services, but civilian institutions — such as UK — are invaluable partners in developing best practices to serve this population.”

In recent years, the CoSW has undertaken numerous military behavioral health (MBH) initiatives. In October 2016, they established a partnership with the DoD to offer a one-of-a-kind master’s degree. A satellite site was created within the Army Medical Department Center and School at FortSam Houston. Today, 70% of incoming Army social work officers hold a UK diploma.

The Military Behavioral Health Lab, which officially launched on Oct. 1, will build upon that considerable momentum. By generating empirical knowledge and testing clinical interventions, the lab aims to address mental health and wellness issues that affect active-duty, reserve, and veteran military populations and their families.

“MBH is a testament to our college’s commitment to serving those who serve our country,” Jay Miller, the dean of the CoSW, said. “As evidenced by the work currently underway, the College of Social Work has the requisite knowledge, expertise and commitment to positively impact the mental health and wellness of service-connected individuals and their dependents.” 

Current projects include employing Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans. The study examines the impact of techniques such as concentration on breath, mindful awareness of physical experience and self-compassion on PTSD symptoms.

Ultimately, the lab will be a vehicle to maximize efficiency, coordination and planning. “Faculty can tend to work in ‘silos’ — each focused on a specific area of research. Many times, opportunities for collaboration are missed,” Flaherty added. “With so many MBH initiatives underway, the college needed a structure to promote collaboration and synergy and to develop strategies to expand educational and research ventures in this area.”

Additionally, CoSW students will have the opportunity to partner with faculty members to examine an array of behavioral health topics.

The VA is the world’s largest employer of social workers, with more than 13,000 positions nationwide. The lab will educate students about career opportunities within the DoD and VA, while training them to be the best candidates for those jobs.

“MBH is an example of the university’s commitment to providing high quality services and conducting rigorous research related to a wide array of populations,” Miller said. “We look forward to continuing to contribute to improving the lives of military personnel, veterans and their families the world over.”

By: Lindsey Piercy

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