Schools of Social Work: December 2022 / January 2023

By Peter Craig

Tulane University: Virtual Reality Yields Actual Results

Dean Bordnick talks to the Tulane football team about virtual reality and mental health

Tulane University School of Social Work Dean Patrick Bordnick, PhD, MPH, LCSW, is a committed technophile — an early adopter of new technology ever since his early days studying cognitive behavioral therapy. 

Pictured at right: Dean Bordnick talks to the Tulane football team about virtual reality and mental health.

During his postdoctorate at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Bordnick began to research cravings for drugs and alcohol in a human behavior lab, showing study participants photos or videos of drugs or alcohol — or of people partying with such substances — and then measuring their craving. But it wasn’t realistic enough, he says. “They’d look up from the research setting and there’s Dr. Bordnick and others in a medical center with lab coats on. I kept thinking, how could we expose [participants] to realistic environments to really get the sense of craving?”

Later, as an assistant professor at the University of Georgia, Bordnick came across virtual reality (VR). At the time, VR headsets could cost up to $60,000. “So we started writing grants to the National Institutes of Health, and we built virtual [party] environments” involving marijuana, cocaine or alcohol, along with corresponding computer-controlled aromas, loud music, even a vibrating platform, he says. “And we were able to reliably elicit craving with 3D computer-generated paraphernalia (drugs, alcohol), and just by being in a social environment without any drugs or alcohol present.”

From Parties to Playing Fields

Dean Bordnick

By the time Bordnick (pictured at left) came to Tulane in 2016 as dean, VR equipment costs had plummeted. Because of new cell phone-based VR technology, he could swap his $400,000 lab for $400 Oculus Quest headsets. Believing that this technology should be available to all, he would use such “off-the-shelf equipment” for research and clinical applications on mindfulness, meditation and self-care — basically improving mental health — with faculty, staff, students and student athletes.

For research with student athletes, the School of Social Work partnered with the Department of Athletics. Athletes traditionally perceived mental health issues as a weakness, says Director of Athletics Troy Dannen. “But society is different today, and has really opened the door for student athletes to come forward when they know they have a liability in their mental health.”

But which sport do you begin with? Bordnick and the athletics department targeted football, starting with the punters and placekickers — particularly high-stress positions. “You’re in front of God and everybody,” Dannen says. “And you’re also relying on 10 other people to do things perfectly in order for you to succeed. So there’s an immense pressure on kickers that sometimes gets lost.”


Tulane School of Medicine PhD candidate Jocelyn Simons, MA, CCC-SLP, has been helping with the student athlete research and is using it as part of her dissertation, “The Impact of Elite Sports Participation on Neurological, Behavioral, and Physical Health During and After an Athlete’s Career.” The hypothesis, she says, “is that the virtual reality mindfulness application will promote overall well-being and improve performance for the players.” (Pictured at right: Drawing a crowd at at Tulane's Yulman Stadium.)

How It Works

Through an app called TRIPP, the modifiable eight- to 10-minute guided meditation, featuring soothing background music, takes you through breathing exercises, complete with a breath steam of air bubbles you can time your breathing to. Then you generally participate in a game to learn mindfulness techniques and how to apply them to everyday life, such as academics or sports. The visuals, says Simons, include “vibrant colors, beautiful nature images, a lot of ocean, fish and coral scenes at the end.”

Tulane punter and virtual reality fan Casey Glover during the University of Houston game in October

The research has shown positive results. Casey Glover, a Tulane punter and kickoff specialist, has done his VR sessions the night before games. “It helps me clear my mind, get relaxed and be able to go to bed,” he says. “You don’t want to be thinking too much about the next day.” One great offshoot of the research project, Glover adds, is that any player can use a headset at any time — before practice, after practice, the night before a game, right before a game. (Pictured at left: Tulane punter and virtual reality fan Casey Glover during the University of Houston game in October.)

In addition, the Tulane football program has used VR technology in the training room, says Dr. Gregory W. Stewart, director of sports medicine. When a player is injured, cramping up or overheated in practice or a game and perhaps on an IV, a social work staffer will have a VR headset for that player “to help calm down neuromuscular excitation” and promote healing.

Clinical assistant: a Tulane virtual reality headset

Now, additional Tulane sports teams are beginning to use VR headsets (a Tulane virtual reality headset is pictured at right), including cross-country and volleyball, says Stewart. And the social work school has developed a partnership with the Alliance of Social Work in Sports to train future social workers to work with athletes.

Meanwhile, Bordnick and school faculty are working with tech firm VXVY Mental Health, Inc., to develop social work courses and applications that will go beyond virtual reality, he says, to examine how to best integrate technology into social work practice, including clinical work, telehealth and teletherapy.

Wayne State University: Social Work PhD Is Standard — and Then Some

Stella M. Resko

Professor Stella M. Resko, doctoral program director, talks about the School of Social Work’s traditional research doctorate and a couple of interesting “add-ons.”

Is your doctoral program available online?
It’s not an online program, although some courses have been offered online due to the pandemic. But the various doctoral options are all available part-time. Most classes are in the evening to accommodate students who have daytime jobs.

Please describe your research doctorate.
At one point we had a clinical track but dropped it. The research track is really the doctoral program; that’s what all the students do. They take research classes, both quantitative and qualitative. But some people add on other things, like the social work and anthropology degree.

Could you describe that transdisciplinary degree?
We call it the “SWAN” program, and a number of students who already have MSWs will apply. But we also have students with more of an anthropology background who are shifting towards social work and [will likely] need to get their MSW as well. SWAN students take a lot of the same classes as social work, along with additional coursework, particularly in ethnography and ethnographic methods. And regarding ethnographic research, one student, for example, is doing a study on families that have children with disabilities and another student’s is on adults with dementia and their caregivers.

Could you also touch on the dual-title social work-infant mental health program?
Students take specialized coursework on infants and infant mental health. The program focuses not only on young children but also parents. It’s a great complement for students who have really focused on those age groups and developmental periods and are working in that area.

University of Kansas: ‘Strong’ Action: New Plan for Child Welfare

Meghan Cizek

The Universal Prevention for Strong and Thriving Families (“Family Strong”) demonstration project at the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare aims to preempt the traditional child welfare system, which is often threatening to families in need. How? “By building a network of providers and support at the community level,” says Family Strong Co-director Meghan Cizek, MA, LCSW, (pictured at left) assistant director, Center for Public Partnerships and Research, “so that no matter what the need is, the community will be empowered and able to support that family to ensure that child welfare involvement is never necessary.”

Dr. Kaela Byers

Approval of a $3.75 million five-year grant from the federal Administration for Children and Families launched a 10-month, in-depth planning period led by a steering committee made up of members with “lived experience” in prevention services and community social service providers serving children and families, says Co-director Dr. Kaela Byers (pictured at right), an associate research professor. The project, with partners like the Kansas Department for Children and Families and three community-based agencies, focuses on eight predominantly low-socioeconomic, underserved counties in southeast Kansas, which has nearly twice the foster care placements as the rest of the state.

To uncover the main issues to target, the steering committee has held “sense-making” sessions in which community members’ stories of both success and failure in local child care are analyzed, providing excellent qualitative data that has changed the trajectory of the project, Cizek says.

Family Strong officially launched Oct. 1. But not before it underwent intensive “sequencing” planning, says Byers, whereby key systems like a powerful communication tool connecting providers called IRIS (Integrated Referral and Intake System) would be put in place before innovative services such as 1-800-CHILDREN, a “warm line” for parents with questions, are announced.

cover of December 2022 / January 2023 issue

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