2022 Doctoral Student Publishes Research Highlighting Stress Experienced by Frontline Social Workers - University of Houston
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Doctoral Student Publishes Research Highlighting Stress Experienced by Frontline Social Workers


March 31, 2022

(HOUSTON, TX) - Holly Davies, (LMSW '20) recently co-authored a research article with Professor Monit Cheung titled "COVID-19 and First Responder Social Workers: An Unexpected Mental Health Storm" in the academic journal Social Work.

The article aims "to provide information for social workers to protect their mental health while caring for their clients and raise awareness about social workers' needs in frontline duties." 

We caught up with Holly to learn more about her history of being exposed to social work values at a young age and why the time is always right for social work. 


Name: Holly Davies, (LMSW '20)
Pronouns: she/her 
Current Program at GCSW: Doctoral Student

What is a key takeaway from your research?

A key takeaway from my research is that social workers on frontline duties in pandemics need extra tools and support to care for their mental health to ensure that their clients' needs are being met. Social workers experience five challenges in this area: resource constraints, employment insecurity, disenfranchised guilt, physical distancing, and self-care management. We can overcome these challenges through planning, policy changes, additional resources, and self-care programs for first responder social workers.

You and your mother are graduates of the same program at the GCSW. Is there any advice she shared with you about going into social work?

My mother attended the GCSW while I was in high school. This period was a window seat into the MSW program as it existed at the time. Some of the advice she shared with me is to genuinely listen to the clients' needs, give complex realities with kindness, and look for strengths when addressing weaknesses. I continue to benefit from her experience and advice in the field, as she is still actively working as a therapist. She has a formidable knowledge of resources in the Houston and Texas area.

This year's theme for Social Work Month is "The Time is Right for Social Work." What about this year's theme resonates with you and your work?

"The Time is Right for Social Work." - there's never been a wrong time for social work. Social work is timelier today than ever, given the increasing political polarization across our nation and the world and increasing wealth gaps--especially in vulnerable populations. Many of us never thought we would see wars in Europe again - and there will be a great need for social workers to help rebuild nations and deal with the trauma and grief occurring in Eastern Europe. My research concentrates on mental health and disasters, especially in vulnerable populations. Given the predictions of increased severity and frequency of natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes, social workers are perfectly positioned to work in interdisciplinary teams and address climate migration issues, policy, preparedness, mitigation, and resiliency for our nation and the world.

You graduated from the MSW program and are now enrolled in our PhD Program, so you have a unique perspective of the GCSW. What was a highlight of your time as an MSW student and what do you hope to achieve during your remaining time in the PhD Program?

I began my MSW at the GCSW the year that Harvey devastated the Gulf Coast - and I came to it with experience in disaster recovery from the 2015 and 2016 floods in Houston. What impressed me about the GCSW was the commitment to the Houston community not only on paper but also through action. Students helped professors in recovery. Professors helped students. And together, we helped Houston recover by sharing resources, information, hope, and strength. The GCSW vision, "To achieve social, racial, economic, and political justice, local to global," is not empty words but a calling to the community fully supported by our students, professors, and administration.

As a PhD student, I see the continued commitment of our college to our vision. I am so glad that the professors have encouraged the PhD students to follow their research interests and connected them with resources and colleagues who can further their careers in social work. During the remainder of my time at the GCSW I hope to work with interdisciplinary teams in engineering, computer modeling, public health, and the social sciences to further disaster research to help responders appropriately plan for, assess, and treat survivors who experience new or worsening mental health challenges after a natural disaster.

Why is the understanding of the mental health of social workers operating within healthcare critical to delivering the GCSW's vision of achieving social justice?

It's essential to understand the mental health of first responder social workers in the healthcare system. Social workers and first responders are often the people who walk between the world of the client and the more extensive systems and require a great deal of cognitive flexibility to advocate for client resources while recognizing the limits of healthcare systems in addressing many of the root causes that impact health. As a "helping" profession, social workers often experience secondary trauma. Practitioners ruminate on client cases and experience exhaustion and hypervigilance because of their exposure to their client's life stories and situations. These trauma and grief reactions were exacerbated during COVID-19's initial phases because systems were not prepared to handle the mass disruptions and increased issues with the pandemic. Ensuring that we prioritize first responder social workers' mental health requires shifting our focus to supporting frontline workers and providing them with tools to prevent burnout and fatigue so that they may continue the excellent work they conduct.