From the Director
Perspectives on Posttraumatic Stress and the DSM-5
MFP Spotlight: Luis Alvarez-Hernandez
MSWs in the Making: MFP Master's Graduates 2021
Congratulations Doctoral MFP Graduates!
Dear Fellows and Alumni,
In observance of PTSD Awareness Month MFP Alumnus Dr. Tanya Sharpe and current doctoral MFP fellow Mariama Diallo, LCSW, share their perspectives on how trauma is experienced by the communities they serve and how diagnostic criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder help and hinder treatment.
Diallo has extensive experience supporting trauma-informed work with survivors of gender violence. Providing mental health services to individuals who have experienced domestic violence, intimate partner violence, and family violence as well as survivors of other types of gender-based violence, including female genital mutilation, forced marriage, honor killing, and human trafficking, is her primary focus as she pursues her practice doctorate at Rutgers University.
Survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) are more likely to experience symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among other mental health concerns. Changes to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) expanded the scope of diagnostic criteria for PTSD, for example by explicitly including sexual assault as a traumatic event. This has enabled practitioners to better understand what can be considered a traumatic event for the purposes of diagnosis and intervention. Furthermore, the four distinct diagnostic clusters outlined in the DSM-5 offer more room to classify and group symptoms that survivors of gender-based violence present into different categories and develop more adequate and effective treatment plans.
However, changes are needed to improve access to services for survivors of gender-based violence among immigrant communities. In my experience, using a trauma-informed approach; taking into consideration clients’ backgrounds, including race, gender, spirituality, and sexual orientation; and going beyond the idea of providing “just” therapy are crucial to fostering trusted working relationships with individuals and support families.
Although it is important to make diagnoses, there are cases in which pathologizing experiences presents a challenge to the working alliance. Additionally, we cannot assume that all our clients understand the concept of trauma and the meaning of mental health symptoms. Helping survivors understand the natural way the mind and the body respond to stressors and its connection with human behavior will normalize their feelings and move forward a healthy healing process. Social workers need to incorporate an anti-oppression practice approach while working with immigrant survivors of GBV who are facing mental health problems. Social workers should use fewer stigmatizing expressions, avoid anthologizing, and involve their clients in all levels of treatment, by allowing them to frame, in their own words, their distress and experiences. In addition, social workers should go beyond “just” the role of therapist and become involved in advocacy, policy work, outreach/education, and identifying barriers that prevent immigrant communities from accessing needed services.
Dr. Sharpe is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash School of Social Work. As a community engaged researcher, Sharpe’s work centers sociocultural factors that influence the coping strategies of Black family members and friends of homicide victims for the purpose of developing culturally responsive approaches and sustainable opportunities that allow Black communities to survive the aftermath of homicide. Dr. Sharpe is the founder and director of the Centre for Research & Innovation for Black Survivors of Homicide Victims, an initiative that works towards her larger aim to advance supportive services for African, Caribbean and Black survivors of homicide victims globally.
Although recent changes to the DSM are said to help clarify relationships between different disorders, absent from the discourse regarding these changes as well as the manual itself is the sociocultural context in which many, if not all, mental health issues, or “disorders,” manifest. This omission is particularly relevant for the communities of Black people I work with. Excessive experiences of anti-Black racism and homicide are intersecting realities of chronic trauma for Black people, suggesting that there is no such thing as PTSD for Black people. The DSM is used for determining insurance benefits and disability. It affects the availability of special education and social services to communities and is a staple in court proceedings. To equip ourselves to respond to the needs of clients in a culturally responsive manner, assessments must include the sociocultural context in which Black people exist.
Current doctoral fellow Luis Alvarez-Hernandez is a licensed clinical social worker and certified anger management specialist who is passionate about supporting mental health in LGBTQ+ communities of color, especially Latinx immigrants. His work focuses on understanding how the sociopolitical context affects the mental health of undocumented LGBTQ+ Latinx immigrants living in the United States. Luis has significant experience in direct practice, having engaged with children, youths and families, immigrants, LGBTQ individuals, people living with HIV/AIDS and other chronic conditions, adults experiencing mental health and substance use difficulties, community groups, and university students in professional contexts. Additionally, he has presented at national conferences such as the Latino Social Workers Organization's conference and published in peer-reviewed academic journals including the Journal of Social Work Education, Journal of Community Psychology, and the International Journal of Transgenderism. Alvarez-Hernandez taught as an adjunct faculty member at Georgia State University, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and Universidad del Sagrado Corazón de Puerto Rico. He intends to apply his experience as a social work educator, researcher, community leader, and clinical practitioner toward teaching in higher education and developing research that informs person-centered mental health and substance use practice.
Of the 42 fellows in the MFP’s 2020–2021 Master’s Cohort, 31 are celebrating graduations this April, May, and June! As these “MSWs in the Making" emerge as fully qualified social workers seeking professional employment in the mental health and substance use spheres, we encourage you to review this booklet that highlights their experience, interests, and career ambitions. As you explore, please take a moment to consider how fellows’ experiences and goals align with professional opportunities in your sphere. In the meantime, please join the MFP team in congratulating our fellows on this tremendous accomplishment.