Trauma-focused MSW program prepares students for advanced level social work

Drew Wilson -

Carlow University Social Work Faculty

Top Row: Brad Smith PhD. Ken Smythe-Leistico PhD Sheila G. Roth PhD, Bill Dabney PhD. 
Seated below: Carrie Stott PhD and Marsha Frank PhD.


PITTSBURGH — Traumatic events – whether experienced through a single occurrence like a house fire, or repeatedly, as seen in intimate partner violence or other forms of abuse – can affect people emotionally, mentally and even physically.

Educating professionals who know how to respond to such situations is one of the goals of Carlow University’s master’s degree in social work (MSW), which began accepting students in the fall of 2018 and recently received its initial accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

“The Carlow MSW program is a trauma-focused program,” said Sheila Roth, PhD, Director of the program. “As trauma-aware social workers, our students learn to recognize the impact of people’s lived experiences and the meaning made of those experiences.”

Roth says the difference begins with a change in perspective of: “What has happened to you?” vs. “What’s wrong with you?” For the layperson, it may seem like a subtle distinction to make, but it’s the difference between seeming to place blame for the experienced trauma on external circumstances vs. appearing to place blame on the person for how he or she feels.

When emotional trauma goes unrecognized, it can be difficult to understand certain behaviors or attitudes,” Roth said. “By being trauma-aware, we can meet people where they are and begin the healing journey.”

According to research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 61 percent of men and 51 percent of women in the United States have reported being exposed to at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. The number grows to 90 percent, however, if the population being considered is limited to people who are in public behavioral health care settings.

“People respond to traumatic events in different ways,” Roth said. “Some people experience trauma but don’t develop a traumatic stress disorder. Others may experience a traumatic event and then develop longer-lasting issues.”

Carlow’s Master of Social Work program seeks to educate and prepare students for advanced level social work, providing a generalist foundation, along with specializations in direct practice and macro practice that will promote human and social well-being and help the students work through the complex situations they may encounter in the field.

“Being a student of a trauma-informed program has made me a better person and social worker,” said Brandy Patterson, who will graduate in December of 2020. “I have learned how the body and the brain are affected from the long-term effects of trauma. I think it has made me more empathetic to people's experiences, and now I am no longer so quick to judge and more willing to learn and understand.”

Patterson says she believes this approach is most beneficial to the client because social workers who use this approach are less likely to inflict further harm and are more likely to help clients heal from their traumas.

The trauma-focused approach also helps Carlow’s faculty make an impression on the students.

“No matter how hard or how easy the work put into the pursuit of my master’s, the instructors in Carlow’s MSW program are right there to encourage me in my endeavors,” said David McDonough, who will graduate in 2021. “I would not have chosen anywhere else as my grad school. Carlow has the right mix of academia, personality and student support that I want in an MSW program.”

Carlow’s MSW program is one of the few programs in the region that can be taken on a hybrid low-residency or part-time basis, which can be ideal for adult and non-traditional students with busy lives and schedules. The program features six full-time faculty with unique specializations and practice experience across the spectrum of social work practice. For more information visit Carlow’s MSW program page or call 412-578-6059.

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