Social Work in the Public Eye (September 2011)

Peggy Ledner-SpauldingPeggy Ledner-Spaulding wrote a guest opinion in the Santa Rosa's The Press Democrat about the tragedy of suicide. As a licensed clinical social worker, Ledner-Spaulding manages an intensive outpatient behavioral health program through Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.

She explained that those who become suicidal are most likely suffering from major depression, mood disorder, thought disorder, substance abuse and/or an anxiety disorder.

“Research and brain imaging technologies now indicate that people who have these illnesses are most likely suffering from a reduction of specific brain chemicals,” she wrote. Ledner-Spaulding said it is fortunate that psychiatric medications are available to address chemical imbalances.

However, Ledner-Spaulding said that her hospital’s support and education groups help people in ways medication cannot.

“We provide a safe, compassionate group treatment environment with a staff of nurses, psychologists, clinical social workers and occupational therapists who teach new, more-effective life skills,” she wrote. “Patients learn to cope with the stresses in their lives and how to better manage distress and anxiety.”

She said the treatment program offers life tools that she believes would make a great addition to basic childhood education.

“If we can learn good mental health skills — for example, how to cope with disappointment or express anger constructively — in our younger years, we will be better equipped to function as adults in our relationships and jobs,” she said.

A major component of the treatment program is having a community of people with similar issues supporting each other. “By helping people realize that this is a human condition, we remove the negative image historically associated with mental illness,” Ledner-Spaulding said.

Charles EmletCharles Emlet, a professor of social work at the University of Washington Tacoma, was quoted in an Associated Press article about the 30th anniversary of the first diagnosis of AIDS in the U.S. The story examined how long-term HIV/AIDS survivors are coping with the challenges of growing older.

People in this group face not only the physical aspects of living with HIV, but there are important psychosocial elements to address, Emlet said in the article.

He noted that long-term HIV/AIDS patients face the same concerns as others advancing in age: possible loneliness, financial insecurity and uncertainty about who will care for them.

However, those with HIV/AIDS who get older many feel “doubly stigmatized,” Emlet said.

“Such emotional side effects, combined with the physical toll of managing chronic health problems, put older (HIV/AIDS) patients at risk for depression,” the article stated. “At the same time, Emlet has uncovered evidence that a majority of long-term survivors also share another trait that typically comes with advanced age: that is, the ability to draw strength from their difficult experiences.”

Emlet said, “The older adults I’ve interviewed, many of them talk about how much it means to them to give back, to do something positive with the years they never expected to have.”

Michael Hanrahan, a high school social worker, was featured in an article in the Middletown, N.Y., Times Herald-Record.

Hanrahan spoke to an eighth-grade class recently about how, as a social worker, he can help them maneuver through the challenges they may face in high school starting in the next year.

“My job is to help you navigate through your four years at the high school and make it better for each of you on the emotional end,” Hanrahan was quoted as telling the students in the story. “It’s a time of growth and change.”

He told the students he can offer them a nonjudgmental environment and confidentiality, “except when a student expresses a desire to hurt himself, hurt someone else, is being abused or is a victim of sexual harassment,” the article stated.

The social worker talked about the differences between being sad and being depressed, in an effort to help students recognize if they — or someone they know — need emotional support.

“Sadness is usually the result of a situation, such as a breakup or death in the family, where depression leads to a total loss of interest in life,” Hanrahan said.

He also discussed why some people choose self-injury, such as deliberately burning or cutting oneself, and that suicide occurs when someone wants to permanently end his or her psychological pain.

“Communication is the best way to get help for yourself or someone you know. It’s not a secret you want to keep,” he reportedly told the students.

Hanrahan, who said he talks to about 40 people a day, added that talking to someone is key.

“Life is full of happiness and joy, but it’s also full of sadness and sorrow,” he said. “The bottom line — don’t suffer in silence. Come see me if you need help.”

Elizabeth BollwinkelWho takes care of caregivers when a loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease? Licensed clinical social worker Elizabeth Bollwinkel takes that question to heart in an article in the Los Altos Town Crier in California.

The story explained that about 5.4 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Bollwinkel, an education specialist with the Alzheimer’s Association in Mountain View, Calif., said the number of those afflicted with the disease is rising and the urgency for a cure and awareness is as important as ever.

“It has become my personal passion to make the world a better place for people with Alzheimer’s,” Bollwinkel was quoted as saying.

She coordinates educational seminars for caregivers in a variety of settings, including nursing and assisted-living homes as well as for nurses at in-home-care agencies and the general public.

“Bollwinkel said she empowers caregivers with the tools needed to manage a patient’s care — aids unavailable to her mother when her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s years ago — and plan for the future,” the story said.

The social worker noted that, eventually, an Alzheimer’s patient needs full-time caregiving, because the only thing predictable about the disease is it progresses in severity over time.

“It’s a disease where people lose their connection to the world and to those around them,” Bollwinkel told the newspaper. “Our job as caregivers is to keep them as connected as possible.”

She teaches caregivers to speak slowly and learn how to communicate with those afflicted with Alzheimer’s.

“You have to step into their world,” Bollwinkel said. “It’s a really important skill to learn.”

The story explained that the Alzheimer’s Association’s mission “includes educating doctors, promoting research, securing governmental policy changes that assist Alzheimer’s patients and offering care and support for those patients and their families.”