Hope and healing: Social work to hold conference on fighting substance abuse

In recent years, illicit drug use and alcoholism have grown in relevance and affect a vast amount of people. However, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, only 11 percent of people struggling with substance abuse receive the help they need.

The BYU School of Social Work is hosting the 13th Annual Social Work Conference on Friday, November 2 at the Hinckley Alumni Center. The free conference will highlight issues, concerns and approaches relevant to every day relief for those who struggle with substance abuse. Professionals, students and members of the community are invited to learn more about this prevalent social problem and obtain strategies to help individuals and families affected by this issue.

In the past 15 years, deaths due to prescription drug abuse have quadrupled in the state of Utah. While the harmful effects of substance abuse are widespread, timely public information is not as far-reaching. According to Assistant Professor of Social Work Cory Dennis, “it’s important to understand that people don’t choose addiction.”

The purpose of this conference is to narrow that knowledge gap as well as inform professionals and work to make an impact in the fight against substance abuse. If people could learn only one thing at the conference, it would be “that behind the addiction is a human being,” says Dennis, noting the importance of “making compassionate and informed approaches to treatment.”

For more information, go to the conference website and be sure to register.

New faculty spotlight: Sherina Saasa

Dr. Sherina Saasa, the newest Social Work faculty member, has spent her life improving the lives of others.

A social worker from the start

Growing up, Saasa looked up to her father and the work he did as an international social worker. Little did she know at the time that her own work and research as a social worker would bring her across the globe to Provo, UT.

Dr. Saasa’s practice and research interests branch from her experiences observing the poverty, oppression and social injustices that vulnerable populations and individuals experience, as well as from her own background as an African emigrant living in the United States.

More specifically, Saasa’s work focuses on inequality, poverty and mental health of underprivileged and vulnerable children in sub-Saharan Africa and that of African immigrant populations in the United States. The fact that there is so little research on African immigrants combined with her own experiences as an immigrant from Zambia only add to the purpose and importance of Saasa’s research.

Sharing goodness

In a time when issues of power and powerlessness are so apparent in politics, standing up for human rights and promoting societal change is needed everywhere.

Saasa promotes and implements these necessary societal changes through her nonprofit, the Crispin Mwakamui Memorial Foundation (CMMF), named after her father. The organization focuses on helping orphaned children living with relatives in impoverished conditions not only have better access to education but also succeed academically.

“My parents always emphasized the value of education,” shares Saasa. “I believe education has the power to change lives and countries for the better. With the non-profit, we do our part to improve the socio-economic and health trajectories of these children who are the future of Africa.”

Teaching with the Lord in mind

Saasa graduated from BYU with a master’s in social work in 2013, but she is very excited to return and teach social work practices with gospel principles.

“God is the greatest scientist, greatest engineer, and greatest social worker that ever lived; to leave him out of the classroom where these subjects are being taught would be such a disservice,” says Saasa. “I always thought that if I ever was to teach and be effective, it had to be in a place where the spirit was a big part of the learning process.”

Through her teaching, Saasa hopes to teach students to believe in themselves and to see and embrace their potential to be a force for good in the world.


The Realities of Trauma: Hope for Victims of Traumatic Brain Injury

Trauma appears to touch nearly everyone, from veterans in the post 9/11 era, to mothers, children, and people in your neighborhood. In fact, there seems to be no shortage of trauma-related events. Fifty-two percent of of combat veterans who served in the post 9/11 wars said they had suffered emotionally traumatic or distressing experiences while in the military, according to a Pew Research Center study.

The November 2015 Social Work Conference, sponsored by BYU’s School of Social Work, the Marjorie Pay Hinckley Endowed Chair, and the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences, brought speakers and specialists to discuss the newest data for and share ways to care for those dealing with trauma.

As defined by the School of Social Work, trauma is most accurately characterized as the emotional response to a disturbing or distressing event that an individual experience. It’s a difficult subject, but one about which faculty and mental health professionals were able to provide a variety of treatment options and inspiring success stories. There is hope for those who’ve suffered trauma.

Traumatic Brain Injuries

It is estimated that there are about 1.7 million for people each year who suffer from a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Fifty-two thousand people will die as a result of their injury. About 1.4 million people with TBI’s are admitted to and released from ER’s each year. Veterans from past wars are at increased risk for dementia from traumatic brain injuries are being added to long lists at Veteran Administration hospitals. The biggest causes of TBI are:

  1. Transportation/Motor Vehicle accidents (ex: alcohol/boating)
  2. Falls (elderly 65+ and young children)
  3. Assaults/guns (leading to open head trauma)
  4. Sports/ recreations (boxing/soccer)

Soccer-playing female athletes sustain the most head injuries because of contact with other players (usually on the ground). Field actions may lead to whiplash or an elbow to the head. Some research has found that neck strength is an indicator for concussions. For men, after football, the second biggest cause of TBI is ice hockey, followed by wrestling and rugby. For children who are younger than age 14, they most likely suffer TBI after falling or playing sports. For those older than that, the leading cause is motor vehicle accidents.

Michael Larson, associate professor of psychology at BYU, reported that there is a huge need for skilled people, such as neuropsychologists, to examine traumatic brain injuries (TBI) more closely . TBI is the leading cause of death and disability for adolescents in America and results in emotional and cognitive difficulties, particularly because the brain’s frontal lobe is not fully developed until age 24. Brain injury before then can result in poorer inhibition and less mature decision-making. It can also have other effects:

Common Behavioral Changes:

  • Irritability
  • Impulsiveness
  • Poor ability to manage social relationships
  • Low motor coordination

As such, it is important to educate caregivers, such as family members, to recognize those changes and know how help a victim who is experiencing them. A common treatment for TBI victims is psychotherapy. Michael Twohig, an associate professor at Utah State University, focuses on Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), or treatments for social behavior (a form of psychotherapy). He suggested that therapists instruct clients in the practice of diffusing thoughts, during which an individual allows thoughts to play out as just thoughts and envisions them as words in his or her head. He said that if you change the context in which you experience those thoughts, they can be easier to handle.

He shared the story of a recent exchange he had with his  10-year old son while they were driving  and witnessed an injured man on the ground. They saw the man lying down in a bloody mess and his son asked him questions about the situation and said, “Dad, I can’t get that image out of my head.” Twohig instructed his son to “find a place for those events in his head:”

“These are thoughts in your head. It’s chatter that’s up there. Your mind will throw out things that you like and things you don’t like but don’t forget it’s just your mind putting things in your head. It’s okay to have inappropriate pictures in your head like from a horror movie… You don’t need to make it go away,  it’s stuff about the event, you just kind of have to wait around with it.”

Although Towhig admits this isn’t necessarily the solution, he says its a way to handle the trauma. To educate yourself more on this topic and other clinical practice methods, visit resources from the Association for Contextual Behavior Science.

Click here to find conference video.

Feature image of brain courtesy of Flickr.



BYU Social Work Conference to Focus on Trauma and Mental Health Treatment Awareness​​​


Advances with mental health treatment have come a long way. Yet, a recent Pew Research Center study concluded that only 19 percent of Americans believe the nation is making progress in tackling mental health diseases. Brigham Young University’s Annual Social Work Conference strives to bridge the gap between those affected by mental health issues and treatments for them. It approaches its tenth year next month and centers on trauma and mental health treatment.  The one-day conference on November 6, 2015 includes speakers who are therapists, psychologists and clinicians. Conference organizers say that the objectives for the annual Conference are to help people

1) Understand the challenges faced by trauma victims, both short term and long term

2) Improve understanding of how to treat and work with those who are struggling with negative side effects of traumatic experiences

3) Recognize the long term effects of trauma and how it impacts the individual’s development, including childhood trauma

4) Create an awareness of trauma related issues within the community and how to protect vulnerable children and families

5) Understand the effect of trauma on the family unit and interpersonal relationships.

Director of the School of Social Work, Gordon Limb, says the goal of the Conference is to “get people more information, knowledge, and skills in how to effectively treat trauma in their work.”

Trauma is our emotional response to a disturbing or distressing event.

                                                                 –Gordon Limb, Director, School of Social Work

The impetus for the conference focus came through expert opinion and strong recommendations. “As we have talked with supervisors of student internships and members of the Social Work Advisory Council, among others, the issue of trauma came up as number one over and over again,” Limb says.

Limb says that most mental health agencies in which students work in are dealing with trauma-related issues. All students participating in the graduate program are required to participate in two internships.

This year, in addition to the usual format of plenary speakers and break-out sessions, the conference also offers a self-care element. “Given that the nature of trauma is a very sensitive topic, participants have the option of entertainment or self-care during lunch,” Limb explains.

Conference organizers say the purpose “is to not only shed light on this topic, but to provide an understanding of how to care for, and meet the needs of those who deal with trauma.” Sponsors for the Conference include the School of Social Work, The Marjorie Pay Hinckley Endowed Chair ​in Social Work and the Social Sciences and the BYU College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences.

Trauma Conference flyer for website

The event is free to the public. Visit swevents.byu.edu to get more information or to register. Guests may register at the Varsity Theater in the Wilkinson Center the morning of, if capacity has not yet been reached.

Trauma and Mental Health Treatment

8:30 AM to 4:00 PM

BYU Wilkinson Center