Mental Health Advocate highlight: School of Social Work

Suspenders4Hope, a program developed at Wichita State University, is highlighting different departments and individuals on campus who are advocates for mental health in hopes that their stories will inspire others to continue supporting one another in the community.

The WSU School of Social Work is being recognized for its support of the mental health of students, faculty, staff and health care professionals. Hear from Shaunna Millar, clinical professor and Master of Social Work program director, on how the School of Social Work is supporting mental health.

How does the School of Social Work promote the importance of mental wellness on campus and in the community?

As social workers, we are well placed to serve as advocates for mental wellness in both of those arenas and feel that sense of responsibility to our larger WSU community. Our students engage in applied learning through their practicums located in over 100 agencies and organizations throughout the region, and they are engaged in the delivery of mental health services including psychotherapy, case management, group facilitation, crisis intervention and group facilitation. These experiences allow our students to bring that knowledge back into their classrooms together, and to bridge that into their campus relationships and roles in many different areas. We feel it’s important to make sure that historically marginalized people are also included in the forefront of what defines “wellness” for our communities and actively work to bring those voices into the spaces we are working and learning.

We also have a new partnership with Sedgwick County, who has entered into an education program agreement with WSU to provide current COMCARE employees an opportunity to obtain a Master of Social Work degree.

In the School of Social Work's efforts to support the mental wellness of faculty, staff and students, what positive developments has the department seen recently?

Social workers believe that as much as wellness is an individual activity, it is really a system responsibility. It must be intentional, and it must be equitable; it is tough for students who have been surviving a pandemic, big social issues, racism, economic stressors and more. It is important for our faculty to focus on strategies that not only help us retain our students, but also provide a model for professional attention to self-care while they are in our programs, and It’s critical to provide a departmental culture that supports wellness, such as boundary-setting, adequate support and mutual respect. Our student organizations are important to our efforts as a school as well, and they have provided a variety of events that build on our ethical responsibility for self-care and connection. We believe that we must “walk the walk” alongside our students in our goals towards wellness, and simple strategies such as check-ins, peer interaction, timely CARE Team referrals and accessibility all contribute to the culture of care that we hope to have for our school. It’s important for us to remember that all of these small steps create big change and make big impact.

How do you see mental wellness initiatives and understanding evolving in the future?

We think there are lots of ways that mental wellness initiatives may go in the future. The idea that “everything is connected” isn’t new, but our approaches to wellness and health continue to evolve as new research solidifies the bio-psycho-social-spiritual connection. We see future wellness activities involving AI, nature and ecology, and virtual reality, even more than they are now. There is a lot of work focused on going beyond “trauma informed” care to evolving truly into healing-centered systemic practices. Cultural humility is a key component to future mental wellness initiatives, as well helping us to create responsive and supportive spaces in our transforming and global world. As companies continue to understand how wellness impacts productivity, we see more and more workplace initiatives that expand wellness and health activities, with higher education spaces doing so even more prominently. How we manage digital device usage and wellness is an ongoing challenge, too, so we see that discussion continuing to lead to new areas as well.

What can others at WSU do to support mental wellness?

There are many things that can happen here at Wichita State at different levels of our system, but what may be the most important and critical component is a relationship. Crafting those are probably the most transformative step most people could take on campus. We often tell our students that in people work, it doesn’t matter how much you know if you don’t have a connection. Everything else will be ineffective without that being established first, so we believe that is where we continue to work together. It’s how we approach teaching, advising, our peers and others in our immediate circles on campus. We’ve got to have some trust, we’ve got to have some talk and we’ve got to have some shared idea of what we are here for. It’s often the superpower we see our awesome colleagues and wonderful students develop together.

What does Suspenders4Hope mean to faculty, staff and students in the School of Social Work?

Suspenders4Hope is everything. When people experience some of the most challenging crises in their lives, they need the support of those that are trained to be as effective as possible in that support. This program provides that, and truly makes the difference for people between life and death. This WSU program should be so proud of the work they are doing to make sure that students, faculty and our wider community have access to trainings and tools.

How has the School of Social Work incorporated Suspenders4Hope in its work?

We intentionally make space in our classes for this training to happen for each of our students. It’s an intentional inclusion and priority that not only may help them in their profession, but also now as a peer and community member at this university. We have our 21st annual POWER social work conference in March, and we are so happy to know that HOPE Services will be there to provide information to the 200 social work professionals in our community as well.

About Wichita State University

Wichita State University is Kansas' only urban public research university, enrolling more than 23,000 students between its main campus and WSU Tech, including students from every state in the U.S. and more than 100 countries. Wichita State and WSU Tech are recognized for being student centered and innovation driven.

Located in the largest city in the state with one of the highest concentrations in the United States of jobs involving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Wichita State University provides uniquely distinctive and innovative pathways of applied learning, applied research and career opportunities for all of our students.

The Innovation Campus, which is a physical extension of the Wichita State University main campus, is one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing research/innovation parks, encompassing over 120 acres and is home to a number of global companies and organizations.

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