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College of Social Work Awarded $2 Million to Support Families Battling Substance Use

Addiction continues to claim thousands of lives and devastate Kentucky communities. At the center of these communities are families in need of support.

The College of Social Work (CoSW) at the University of Kentucky has been awarded $2.6 million to support Kentucky families struggling with substance misuse.

More specifically, the CoSW will oversee the Kentucky Sobriety Treatment and Recovery Team (START) in the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services. The program, which provides child welfare-based intervention, aims to help parents achieve lasting recovery and provide a stable home.

Addiction continues to claim thousands of lives and devastate Kentucky communities. At the center of these communities are families in need of support. Foster care placements have risen alongside substance misuse — leaving children as the youngest casualties of the nationwide epidemic.

“Substance misuse has had a crippling impact on Kentucky communities,” Erin Smead, program director of START, explained. “Families and young children have been particularly impacted by the inimical outcomes associated with this crisis.”

The soaring population of children entering the state’s care is further straining a system already overwhelmed. CoSW, through START, hopes to lessen the Child Protective Services (CPS) burden by addressing the mental health needs of parents and children across the Commonwealth. The primary goals focus on ensuring child safety, expanding the quality of behavioral health services and reducing entry into out-of-home care.

“START is one the state’s premier child welfare intervention and prevention programs,” Melissa Segress, executive director of the CoSW Training Resource Center and co-principal investigator, said. “The program is consistent with the mission of CoSW, specifically, and the university, more broadly.”

START intervenes immediately after a family comes to the attention of CPS. The goal is to provide quick access to a holistic assessment and treatment services. The program provides continued support by pairing a social worker with a family mentor. Together, these trained specialists help guide families through recovery. Family mentors are individuals who have achieved at least three years of sobriety and had previous involvement with CPS.

“It is absolutely imperative that we do everything we can to support and keep families together in a safe, stable environment,” Jay Miller, dean of CoSW, said. “START permits mentors the opportunity to leverage their own lived experiences in a way that can positively impact the lives of others.”

According to START, women in the program have higher rates of sobriety than their non-START child welfare-involved counterparts (66% vs. 36%), and children in the program are 50% less likely to enter out-of-home placements than children from a matched comparison group.

START is directed and funded by the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services in partnership with local treatment providers and with consultation on early childhood mental health needs from the Kentucky Department for Behavioral Health, Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities.

UK College of Social Work Awarded $1.1 Million to Study Suicide Exposure in Military Populations

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 16, 2019) — It’s a staggering statistic — nearly half of Americans report they know someone who has died by suicide. Every one of these deaths leaves an estimated 135 people behind.

The grief process is always difficult, but a loss by suicide is like no other. And when the person who dies is someone you work with, especially in a tight knit community — like the military — it can have a lasting impact.

“As we continue to lose members of the military to suicide, it is very important to understand how these suicides impact the people working with them,” Julie Cerel, a professor and licensed psychologist in the UK College of Social Work (CoSW), said.

Cerel has been awarded a $1.1 million grant, over the next two years, to research the impact of exposure to suicide. The study, funded by the Military Suicide Research Consortium, will include surveys and interviews of personnel in the Kentucky Army National Guard. The study will also focus on people military-wide who are more likely to have occupational exposure, such as social workers, casualty assistance officers and chaplains.

In 2018, 541 service members died by suicide. Members of the National Guard accounted for 135 of those deaths. That’s compared to 133 in 2017 and 122 in 2016. The suicide rates in the National Guard are on the rise while the rest of the military is seeing a stabilization.

Cerel noted the Department of Defense has recognized the continued increase and the need for novel research to better understand how to prevent suicide and help those left behind. “This is a unique opportunity to collaborate with the Kentucky Army National Guard,” she explained. “We want to understand how suicides have an impact on our citizen soldiers and to help them in dealing with the increase.”

Cerel’s goal — along with the CoSW — is to determine how to best help those suffering from suicide loss and use the findings to implement the necessary training.

“We hope to understand how some people are very much impacted by a suicide and it becomes a risk factor for their own mental health complications or suicide attempts,” Cerel said. “We need to be able to prepare them for these situations, so the stress of this work does not lead to burnout or their own mental health difficulties.”

In recent years, the CoSW has undertaken numerous military behavioral health (MBH) initiatives. On Oct. 1, the college launched the Military Behavioral Health Lab, which aims to address mental health and wellness issues that affect active-duty, reserve and veteran military populations and their families.

“It is very important that the CoSW, specifically, and the university, more broadly, continue to examine issues related to suicide,” Jay Miller, dean of CoSW, said. “We hope that our strategic visioning and partnerships will contribute to a deeper understanding of how to best serve those impacted by suicide.”   

Cerel’s project will also benefit from the special partnership between the CoSW and the Army Master of Science program at Fort Sam Houston.

By Lindsey Piercy

‘Behind the Blue’ Jay Miller at Helm of UK College of Social Work

On this week’s edition of “Behind the Blue,” UK Public Relations and Strategic Communications’ Carl Nathe talks with Miller about his vision and hopes for the college as it serves the citizens of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

The University of Kentucky College of Social Work prepares its students for careers of service across a spectrum of important areas touching virtually every segment of our society. Earlier this year, faculty member Jay Miller was named as the college’s new dean.

On this week’s edition of “Behind the Blue,” UK Public Relations and Strategic Communications’ Carl Nathe talks with Miller about his vision and hopes for the college as it serves the citizens of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

“Behind the Blue” is available on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and Spotify. Become a subscriber to receive new episodes of “Behind the Blue” each week. UK’s latest medical breakthroughs, research, artists and writers will be featured, along with the most important news impacting the university.

For questions or comments about this or any other episode of “Behind the Blue,” email BehindTheBlue@uky.edu or tweet your question with #BehindTheBlue.

New Lab Addresses Mental Health, Wellness Among Military Population

Ultimately, the lab will be a vehicle to maximize efficiency, coordination and planning.

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 Fort Sam 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 nizagara pills and 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.”

To learn more about the Military Behavioral Health Lab, you can contact Kaitlyn Brooks or Lindsey Piercy.

Connecting Kentucky Families with Missy Segress, Jessica Fletcher, and Karen Bowman

No matter how prepared you are, once a child walks into your home, it can feel overwhelming. You ultimately need someone who understands.

Imagine you’re a new foster parent, adoptive 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/adoptive/kinship parent can be demanding. Research indicates that caregivers often struggle to find support, especially in rural communities. On top of that, 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 launched a new initiative.

Adoption Support for Kentucky – Virtual Interaction Program (ASK-VIP) is now available at two pilot sites in Eastern and Northern Kentucky. The online platform offers support for caregivers who are unable to attend traditional meetings.

Missy Segress, Director of the TRC and Jessica Fletcher, Associate Director of the TRC, oversee the program. Karen Bowman administers the initiative.

“ASK-VIP is an innovative approach to providing support to foster, adoptive and kinship caregivers across the state. What’s more is that the program is specifically designed to reach caregivers that would not otherwise be served,” Miller continued. “Given the rising numbers of youth in out-of-home care, programs like ASK-VIP will be integral to ensuring the well-being of children and families. ASK-VIP is an initiative rooted in a common purpose; aimed at a common good; and, for the Commonwealth.”

ASK-VIP harnesses technology to organize virtual meetings. Group sessions occur at least once per week, while individual sessions occur throughout the week. These discussions are a safe space for caregivers to share their personal experiences without fear of judgment. Additionally, the program offers specialized training provided by a peer facilitator, who is also an adoptive parent.

“The fact that I can interact with other adoptive parents and we can access support from one another virtually is really helpful. I live in a rural area and having children at home means it is not always easy to leave home to access services,” Rachael Wall, an adoptive parent and peer facilitator, said. “This program has afforded me the opportunity to interact with other parents in a way that I never would have before.”

“I have seen families isolate themselves and then fail in their journey. With added supports, such as a virtual group, we can make sure our families feel supported and get their questions answered,” Knecht, who is also a peer facilitator, 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.”

Sergeant Samantha Hess

Sergeant Samantha Hess

Sgt. Hess, like those in her cohort, takes her classes in an online program format. Through UK’s CSWE – accredited online Master of Social Work program, Sgt. Hess and her cohort will get the chance to build on their passion for helping others as they learn to provide innovative, effective support to diverse communities. Through the program, Sgt. Hess has been gaining the skills to connect with people as she assesses the need for, implement, and evaluate the results of interventions. 

What made you want to pursue your master’s in social work?

“I thought a lot about it. I always knew when I graduated with my bachelor’s that I wanted to go to graduate school. I realized that the field of study I had (healthcare administration) is not related to anything in my life, so I wanted to ensure that what I get my masters in is what 100% where I want to go with my career,” Hess said. “I wanted to make sure that whatever picked, I was really passionate about. If it weren’t for this job (UKPD), I would have never realized that is what I was passionate about.”

How has the program impacted you so far?

“I have noticed a change. It’s very odd how my career in law enforcement is lining up with what I’m studying in social work, which I never thought would happen. 

Even in the same week, I attended about forensic experience trauma interviewing, and at the same time, I was doing a project on interviewing in my class. It was really odd how, from my law enforcement training, I could better complete my projects,” Hess said. “From my social work classes, it creates a different perspective. Social work is helping me take a step back and look at the big picture when I’m working with someone and how this small interaction maybe impacts their entire lives. I think a lot differently.”

How will the online MSW program help your career?

“It will change my career a lot. I love being a cop. People have certain expectations of police, and I usually am something different for them. I’m different and pursuing social work. Whenever I introduce myself, like at a law enforcement training, they always have you tell something interesting about yourself – that’s what I say, ‘I’m getting my master’s in social work,’ and they’re like ‘That’s weird.’ You don’t have to be a social worker; there are so many things you can do. I want to use this education to help improve UKPD,” Hess said. “We interact with victims every day, so how I want to incorporate my degree and education into my law enforcement career is by developing some structure for victims here in UKPD; how they can expect to be worked with, just making them aware we support them and that we try to be open-minded officers – from that to literally putting a packet together for a victimized crime to ensure our cops are getting what we need to get in a very victim-centered way.”

Why did you choose to do an online MSW?

“I think that if I had to do an in-person class, I wouldn’t be able to at this point in my career and in my life, because I’m an independent person. I have to pay my bills, so working here is what fuels that, and as a police officer, you work a lot of hours. In one week, a midterm week, I worked 80 some hours, so that was very, very challenging. But the fact that I could do it when I got home after work makes it so much easier,” Hess said. “I’m very, very appreciative to have that opportunity.”

How did you hear about the online program?

“In May, I was in this training, and all my friends were talking about, ‘oh, we should go back to school.’ I said, ‘Yeah, we should get our masters!’ But you know, we all dream it and never really do. It was literally that week in Louisville that I just started researching different fields that I think I could be in for the rest of my life. Not just now, and not just in line with law enforcement, but something that I’d feel solid with,” Hess said.

Would you recommend the program to other people, and why?

“Yes, it’s very challenging, but I think it forces you to grow in the direction that social work needs right now. I really do recommend it because I don’t think I could get my masters if it weren’t for this program being online,” Hess said.

Why is it important for people in law enforcement to understand social work and its impact?

“It’s my passion to work with people who are in need. I obviously enjoy that because I’m a police officer and that is a huge part of my job. I think that it’s really great for people to see someone in a uniform that still strives to study how they can improve themselves. I think it’s helped me understand the need for people in this field (law enforcement) to study social work because we only have our own perspective and often forget others,” Hess said. “I feel like it’s the most important thing I can do is to show people there are cops that care in different ways than what maybe what they’ve learned in their experiences. I’m very, very grateful that I have the ability and opportunity to do this.”

College of Social Work Names New Dean

“Announcements like these remind us that the brightest days, for the college and the university, are ahead.”

Justin “Jay” Miller has been selected as the next dean of the College of Social Work (CoSW) at the University of Kentucky, pending approval by the UK Board of Trustees.

“It is such an honor to be selected to serve as the next CoSW dean. This is an exciting time for the university and for the college,” Miller said. “I am extremely thrilled to be working with CoSW faculty, staff, students and alumni to forge an impactful path forward.”

Miller is at the helm of many endeavors in the CoSW and brings passion to his work as an educator and scholar. He is currently the associate dean for research, an associate professor and director of the Self-Care Lab. Miller has spent his career committed to improving the lives of children, families and the professionals who serve them.

“We are thrilled to welcome Jay Miller into this new role. His impressive tenure in the college, extensive leadership experience and high level of respect he has generated among his colleagues makes him the ideal candidate to lead the college forward,” Provost David W. Blackwell said. “Announcements like these remind us that the brightest days, for the college and the university, are ahead.”

Miller earned his bachelor’s degree in social work from Western Kentucky University. He also graduated with a master’s degree in social work from Spalding University and a doctoral degree in social work from the University of Louisville.

After completing his undergraduate degree, Miller worked for Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services and oversaw social service initiatives for the Department of the Army.

Miller also takes great pride in his research to determine how to best change the system. His college essay focus on child welfare, youth involvement in juvenile systems and organizational wellness, areas in which Miller has published a number of research papers, books and conducted national and international presentations and lectures. He has been involved in a long line of inquiry that examines self-care among academicians and institutional factors that contribute to overall wellness.

Miller continues to be heavily engaged in foster care advocacy. He serves as president of Foster Care Alumni of America – Kentucky, where he consults and leads a myriad research projects and initiatives. Miller also serves as chairperson of the Kentucky Board of Social Work, among a host of other service endeavors.

A past recipient of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services’ Paul Grannis Award, Miller also is a 2014 inductee into the College of Health and Human Services Hall of Fame at Western Kentucky University. Miller recently received the 2019 Children’s Bureau Champion Award for his research on addressing workforce issues.

Miller succeeds Ann Vail, who has served as interim dean of the CoSW since 2015.

“During my tenure as dean, CoSW will remain fervently committed to actualizing the mission of the university,” Miller said. “To meet this aim, the college will focus on conceptualizing and delivering an accessible, world-class social work education, fostering a culture of engagement, and strategically investing in teaching and research infrastructure. Ultimately, for our faculty, staff, students and alumni, we hope to create and sustain an ideal environment in which to be educated, employed and engaged.”

Miller will begin his tenure as dean July 1.

Hoda Shalash

Hoda Shalash

Hoda Shalash is like many students in college.

She thought she knew what she wanted to major in, and for three years, Hoda worked toward her degree in special education. As she began filling out graduate school applications, Hoda realized how restricted she was in what she wanted to do.

“I always knew I wanted to work with inner-city kids and mentor youth, but I’m also so passionate about developing communities and working within them,” Hoda said. “So, I never saw myself within a school setting. I felt restricted by that.”

Everything in Hoda’s world outside of her schoolwork seemed to align back to social work. It became clear to her that that was where her passion for helping others was meant to be.

Hoda also realized how much more versatile a degree in social work would be.

“You know, getting your bachelor’s in education only certifies you to work in a school setting. A degree in social work is a lot more versatile,” Hoda said. “I hope to get my master’s in clinical social work, too, to apply those skills to whatever I do on a macro level.”

Changing her major felt like a quarter-life crisis. Still, once Hoda entered the social work program, she quickly found the fuel to ignite her passion for helping others. While sitting in one of her intro classes, she learned about the institutional injustices and systemic racism.

“I was sitting there, and this is going to sound so cliché, but the thing I told myself is – ‘If not me, then who?’ Our communities need so much healing, and that’s not going to get done if we don’t have enough social works and enough passionate social workers.”

Growing up as a Palestinian Muslim girl in Lexington, Kentucky, Hoda had the opportunity to see and experience the need for healing in the communities that surrounded her. One community that she felt a significant connection to was the one she grew up with. Being in Lexington played a substantial role in her decision to come to the University of Kentucky College of Social Work.

“Lexington plays a considerable role, as well as the community. So much of the faculty here are so interconnected and intertwined within the community. I think that there are so many people here doing amazing things,” Hoda said. “Like Dr. L (Diane Loeffler, Director of Undergraduate Programs), I met her at a coffee shop, and now we’re friends. Everyone here is so supportive. I look up to so many of the people here.”

Alumna Nada Shalash is also someone Hoda looks up to, and not just because she’s her big sister. Hoda said she is her biggest role model because of how passionate she is about social work. Not only has Nada been successful in her endeavors upon graduating, but Hoda has had the unique opportunity to see her passion grow throughout her time in the CoSW program.

And a growing passion is what has fueled Hoda to do the same. 

“I think it’s been easy to be ambitious in this program and actually feel confident because there is so much support and so many opportunities for student success,” Hoda said. “Even financially, I feel like they (CoSW) offer great scholarships, and they always send job opportunities. I feel like they truly care about student success.”

The biggest take away for Hoda has been being able to finally study her passion – and it’s been fun. Although she struggled a little at the beginning when she switched her major, it was worth it knowing she had found her purpose. 

Her advice to others having their quarter-life crisis is to sit and reflect on what their values are, to self-assess what they want in life and what their purpose is.

“It goes back to value setting. Once you layout your values, you realize how much it aligns with social work,” Hoda said. “That’s what’s going to take you far and what is going to reignite your passion. You also have to be open-minded and challenge your discomfort and learn from it. Within social work specifically, you can’t go far, and you can’t be successful if you don’t challenge yourself.

And as cliché as this is going to sound – unlearn your fears and hatred.”

Hoda anticipates graduating in May 2021 and is considering applying for the Integrated Behavioral Health program.