RIC students focus on easing youth trauma

SOCIAL WORK: Rhode Island College professor Jayashree Nimmagadda, standing, teaches a class on case and clinical consultation. / PBN PHOTO/ MICHAEL SALERNO
SOCIAL WORK: Rhode Island College professor Jayashree Nimmagadda, standing, teaches a class on case and clinical consultation. / PBN PHOTO/ MICHAEL SALERNO

Research has established that trauma has the potential to affect children long after they reach adulthood.

Helping young adults with these experiences, which could include witnessing violent crime, enduring domestic violence, sexual assault or moving multiple times within foster care, is the focus of a clinical-education program at Rhode Island College. A cohort of RIC students pursuing a master’s degree in social work is getting specialized training in how to help youth affected by trauma.

The program, which requires students to work alongside mentors in a 20-hour-a-week internship for two consecutive semesters, recently received a third year of funding through a federal grant.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded $159,555 to Rhode Island College for its Trauma Informed Collaborative Care Education program, according to professor Jayashree Nimmagadda, who for eight years was chair of the M.S.W. program at Rhode Island College.

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Through the grant, the graduate students each will receive $10,000 stipends to help them complete their studies faster.

At Brown University, the federal department also continued funding a mental health training program, which is designed to increase the number of clinical psychologists holding doctorates. That program received $57,142 for the upcoming year, according to the federal department.

For the Rhode Island College graduate students, field placements have included Foster Forward, an East Providence-based nonprofit, Family Service of Rhode Island, a Providence-based nonprofit, Providence Community Health Centers, and R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families.

“We have partnered with agencies in the communities where we are more likely to find youth seeking these services,” Nimmagadda said.

Several current students enrolled in the program said the existence of the stipend allowed them to tackle the courses as part of the full-time cohort.

Frank Paul had a full-time job as a milieu associate at Bradley Hospital when he entered the M.S.W. program at Rhode Island College. With the stipend, he was able this year to reduce his employment hours and go full time as a student.

He already has a bachelor’s degree in social work, but said he was interested in gaining more applicable skills in assessing trauma.

Now in his final year of the program, he’s gained new insight into his young clients, Paul said.

“You start asking the right questions,” Paul said.

According to the grant application submitted by Nimmagadda, the goal of the program is to increase within three years the number of clinically trained social workers with this specialty. The program, which started two years ago, is expected to graduate 28 master’s-level clinicians in social work within three years.

The program has a particular focus on interventions for youth who are aging out of the foster care system, she said. In 2007, Rhode Island lowered the age at which state-supported services stop for foster children, to 18, from 21.

As a result, the number of youths who were removed from the foster care system by “aging out” increased by 59 percent from 2007 to 2011, compared to the previous five years.

In her grant application, Nimmagadda referred to these youths as one of Rhode Island’s most vulnerable populations, as three-quarters of them had entered the foster care system at age 12.

“Large proportions of this group are reaching the age of majority and or exiting out of foster care, never having received adequate treatment for the traumas they endured at home, or the additional traumas experienced via multiple moves or placements within the child-welfare system,” she wrote.

Emily Dimon entered the master’s degree program last year, after evaluating the curriculum and the affordability of Rhode Island College. The college is the only one in Rhode Island that includes an M.S.W. degree.

Dimon had worked previously in health education at a college, and also at a nonprofit. She already holds a master’s degree in women’s studies, but wanted more practical skills in helping traumatized young adults.

What she has learned, she said, includes techniques that can be taught to clients for grounding themselves when they are triggered by events or stimuli. That could include deep breathing, or going for a walk.

For example, she said, a youth who witnessed someone being shot may re-experience that trauma when they hear a gunshot or other sounds.

“Many of them cannot distinguish between a memory and the experiencing of a thing,” she said. Her education, she said, is teaching her to pair clients “with tools to calm themselves when they feel anxiety or a trigger.” •

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