Well-acquainted with societal struggles,
Carthage social work professor takes aim at roots
• • •
In her 25 years as a clinical social worker, Debbie Minsky-Kelly became intimately familiar with all kinds of struggling populations.
Those dealing with addiction or mental illness. The homeless. Abused and neglected children. Lots of people with lots of distinct needs, yet she noticed a single common denominator.
“The thread that ran through all my years of social work practice was seeing the effect of trauma on communities,” she says.
The clinical assistant professor of social work has closely studied psychological trauma and its impact on brain development, health, learning, and relationships. Hint: It’s all bad.
This Debbie doesn’t mean to be a downer. She simply understands the hidden dangers lurking in the wake of the nation’s turmoil.
That’s why local and national media have interviewed Prof. Minsky-Kelly in recent months, trying to gauge the potential fallout — and a path to recovery — from a jarring year.
Assessing the damage
What is trauma? In that discussion, ACEs trump everything.
A landmark study in the 1990s traced a host of societal problems back to a set of Adverse Childhood Experiences grouped under three headings: abuse, neglect, and household challenges. The list has grown since then.
Distilling all of the pyramid charts and toolkits for a mainstream audience, Prof. Minsky-Kelly explains what lies at the heart of any traumatic event: an unsafe feeling.
Sometimes trauma smolders for years, as police brutality against African Americans has. The killing of George Floyd finally set the nation’s anger ablaze.
“There’s this constant state of toxic stress that people of color have faced since any of us have been alive,” says Prof. Minsky-Kelly. “Racism has been found to be as damaging as child abuse in terms of the effect on health over the long term.”
Other times, it’s easy to put your finger on a single event or starting point, like this year’s COVID-19 outbreak. Doctors, nurses, and paramedics feared for their own well-being like never before.
In ordinary times, just seeing patients suffer can induce a kind of secondary trauma in empathetic caregivers. It’s just that nobody worries about catching a heart attack or cancer.
Over time, Prof. Minsky-Kelly grew alarmed by the damage that secondhand stress was inflicting on her own field. Her extensive clinical experience came in child welfare, homeless health care, and hospital mental health — all settings that could overwhelm a less emotionally prepared practitioner.
“I wasn’t meeting a lot of fellow social workers who had done the work for 25 years,” she says. “They were leaving because it was so hard.”
The high turnover was unsustainable. A solution had to come from upstream.
Then the director of Rogers Behavioral Health, a Kenosha treatment provider for mental health and substance abuse, she saw a glaring need to “better prepare students for what the demands of the profession really are.” So, in 2018, she left to join the Carthage faculty.
“Building that foundation with people just starting out in the field was a very important contribution I could make,” Prof. Minsky-Kelly says.
Besides teaching, she’s the field director for the program. She coordinates seniors’ placements at more than 60 internship sites.
Students know they’ll always get a straightforward answer from the professor, who admits she’s “not a big fan of sugarcoating what the social work practice looks like.”
That’s not to scare them away from the field — on the contrary, Prof. Minsky-Kelly wants to equip them for the long haul. Driven by idealism alone, too many newcomers to the field succumb to burnout.
She strongly encourages students to consult with their classmates and their expanding professional network. The longtime social worker points out that she still leans heavily on her own peers in the field.
Many field agencies closed during Wisconsin’s “Safer At Home” directive last spring, sending senior social work majors scrambling for alternate options to meet the 400-hour clinical minimum. (Carthage made a one-time exception to its usual threshold of 450 hours.)
With just weeks to go in his final semester, A.J. Gouriotis ’20 huddled with professors Becki Hornung (chair of the Social Work Department) and Minsky-Kelly to brainstorm Plan B — and then Plan C. For the last mile, he helped a niche professional association, the Alliance of Social Workers in Sports, to shape its upcoming virtual conference.
A.J. took more classes with Prof. Minsky-Kelly than any other faculty member.
“Helping us build that resilience and reminding us we’re more than capable was very helpful,” he says. “When times are tough, she’s at her best.”
A new approach
Pay close attention to the recent graduate’s choice of words. Building resilience is a key phrase — no, more like a primary goal — for anyone who works with traumatized populations. Professionals insist the ability to adapt, to bounce back, can be taught.
Agencies are increasingly adopting a model of care that takes a person’s underlying trauma into account. Resilient Wisconsin, an initiative the state launched in April, sums up the difference in one question: “Rather than the typical medical approach of asking ‘What is wrong with you?’ a trauma-informed approach would instead ask ‘What has happened to you?’”
For a school principal, that might mean peeling back the layers to see what’s triggering a student’s disruptive behavior, rather than automatically attributing it to ADHD or writing the kid off as a bad seed.
For a health care provider, that might mean calming a patient down with breathing exercises rather than restraining them. Or knowing that victims of sexual assault don’t all react the same.
“Some of the behaviors we see in traumatized people only make sense if we’re looking through a trauma lens,” Prof. Minsky-Kelly says. “This is really considered the gold standard now.”
There’s been some pushback from traditionalists in those fields, who say the trauma-informed approach just absolves people of responsibility. Prof. Minsky-Kelly counters with scientific evidence about the brain.
Plus, the strategy appears to be effective. In communities where the model’s been in place long enough to evaluate, lots of troublesome youth statistics are dropping: suicides, arrests, suspensions, and teen pregnancies.
Shortly after settling into her faculty office, Prof. Minsky-Kelly developed a new course: Trauma Across Social Contexts. Now offered each fall, it introduces students to trauma’s impact and their own role in the healing process.
Though listed as a social work elective, she argues it’s equally valuable for students pursuing careers in education, criminal justice, health care, psychology, and economics.
No need to persuade Michele Hancock, a professor of practice in education. Given the need to dismantle systemic inequities in K-12 schools, she calls trauma “a critical topic for educators.”
Describing Prof. Minsky-Kelly as a “highly passionate and extremely knowledgeable” leader in this growing movement, she sees a big opportunity for cross-disciplinary collaboration.
“Debbie is willing to go the extra mile to support meaningful education to any and all about the impact of trauma on human lives,” says Prof. Hancock.
Both women served as faculty panelists at Carthage’s first Trauma and Wellness Conference in February. The free event drew a maximum-capacity audience from a wide range of occupations.
“It clearly met a community need,” Prof. Minsky-Kelly says. “Just seeing this cross-section of professionals who want to do a better job and be more responsive was a huge accomplishment.”
Little did they know one of the most traumatic periods imaginable lay just around the corner, putting all of that newfound knowledge to the test.