Saturday, July 07, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — As World War I was nearing its end 100 years ago, thousands upon thousands of soldiers were showing signs of what was at the time known as “shell shock” — a condition now known as a type of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

In order to treat the soldiers experiencing the condition, which became the signature injury of those returning from the Great War, Smith College created a summer program that soon became the Psychiatric Training School.

“The opportunity to do work in military hospitals is, perhaps, the most interesting opening that the training school offers to college women,” reads a New York Times article from June 16, 1918. “But it is only one part of the service which it is hoped the school at Smith College can give in the big war program of health conservation. Particularly to the conserving of mental health the war has given a tremendous impetus.”

That program is now the renowned Smith College School for Social Work, which is still a “sole specialization clinical school” all these years later. And this summer, it is marking its centennial, reflecting back on all the work that began with that first class in 1918.

“This was radical 100 years ago – women providing psychiatric services to men,” the school’s dean, Marianne Yoshioka, said in a recent interview.

Now, the program has opened up to students of all genders, and includes master’s and doctoral programs. And although its focus has expanded to include many forms of trauma, its core mission — helping those in need, and the inherent dignity of all — remains its central focus.

How that mission is accomplished, however, has changed significantly, Yoshioka said.

“In the last 100 years, how we think about what is help – who gets to help who, what does that help look like — that has changed radically,” Yoshioka said. “A white-gloved community helping a less-abled community… that’s how we thought about it in those early days.”

Today, Yoshioka said social work is supposed to be a more collaborative venture, in which those receiving services should have a say in what those services are, or how they receive them. She said that shifted power dynamic comes from the greater understanding of racism, institutional discrimination and exclusion.

Yoshioka said that the school is committed to anti-racism work, even when that work means turning the mirror inward.

In August of 2016, students at the School for Social Work protested what they described as racist attitudes within the school. The protest was spurred by leaked letters written by faculty members, which students said contained racist language, dismissed concerns over racism at the school and suggested that some students of color in the program weren’t qualified enough to be there.

“That protest was a pivotal moment for us,” Yoshioka told the Gazette. She said that while the school’s curriculum may have been aligned with its anti-racist mission, students drew attention to how the school’s structure and procedures weren’t living up to that same committement. Since then, Yoshioka added, the school has made progress, but still has “lots of way to go, continuously.”

In the wake of those protests, the school has implemented a faculty action plan to address structural racism and oppression at the school. It also has tweaked its policies around academic review and how students are expelled for academic reasons, Yoshioka said.

“But that doesn’t mean we’re perfect,” she said of the changes. “It means we are willing to talk about it and continuously work to identify it and address it and make reparations when needed.”

On the front lines

In the last 100 years, the people who School for Social Work students help has expanded to include those who experience violence in their communities, racial and ethnic violence, as well as war veterans. The list is expansive.

“We certainly have in the last few years dealt with more questions about immigration, about refugees, about the ways in which a lack of mental health resources affect families and individuals,” said Marsha Kline Pruett, a professor and associate dean at the school.

Smith students from the School for Social Work are often on the front lines of clinical care. Around 250 students from the program are placed in organizations around the country every year, providing about 240,000 clinical hours pro-bono — about 87,000 hours in Massachusetts, according to Yoshioka.

And graduates often end up working in nearby communities. Many of the program’s graduates can be found at ServiceNet, for example, a mental health and human services nonprofit organization based in Northampton.

“We have a lot of Smith people who end up as clinicians,” said Ann Augustine, a 1998 graduate from the master’s program and the current director of outpatient clinical services at ServiceNet. “Because of that mission and because of the high quality training one gets, you’re very marketable when you go out into the field.”

Augustine said that a lot of the foundational concepts she learned at Smith — a commitment to social justice and providing high quality care to everyone — have stayed with her all of these years, and are the reason she has remained in community-based mental health services instead of entering a more lucrative private practice. A community focus is as important as ever in this current social and political moment, she added.

“Many people are struggling financially, emotionally, dealing with personal and societal traumas. Resources are capped, communities are stretched, individuals are stretched and as social workers we are often witness to, and on the front line, trying to help support people through really trying times,” Augustine said.

Also working at ServiceNet is Katya Cerar, a contract director who graduated from the School for Social Work doctoral program in 2013.

“The reason I wanted to pursue a doctoral degree at Smith was the focus on clinical social work,” Cerar said, adding that it enhanced her capacity to teach and coach others doing direct clinical work.

Cerar said she has stayed in her current line of work because she wants to continue helping people who, for example, “may not be able to go to fancy couple’s therapy clinics.”

“I think Smith prepares us to be doing this kind of groundwork with oppressed and marginalized populations,” she said. “It draws students who are interested in doing that work, and who want to stay in community mental health because that’s where the advocacy needs to happen.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at [email protected].

Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt