MSW Research Award-Winning Projects Delve into Aspects of Mental Health

Mental health issues were the focus of the two award-winning research projects in this year’s competitive Research Award for MSW Students. Each student received $500 as winner and $250 for her initial proposal.

The winners are:

  • Karly Comfort, San José State University, “Thinking Positive, Being Connected, and Staying Active: The Impact of Mental Illness Stigma on Caregiving, Well-Being, and Self-Care’s Role as a Buffer”; and
  • Rachel Ruiz, San Diego State University, "The Reduction of the Juvenile Justice Population and Changing Mental Health Needs"

CalSWEC’s Research & Development Committee, in conjunction with California Association of Deans and Directors, established the Research Award for MSW Students to encourage and support student research that will contribute to the evidence base for policy and practice for public human services. The research competition is open to all MSW students attending universities in  CalSWEC’s consortium.

RELATED: See the other finalists and their projects in the 2016 competition

What Inspired Them

Asked "Why did you decide to pursue this particular project?" the award winners provided their responses, below.

Karly Comfort, “Thinking Positive, Being Connected, and Staying Active: The Impact of Mental Illness Stigma on Caregiving, Well-Being, and Self-Care’s Role as a Buffer"

When you think of someone with schizophrenia living at home, what are the first five things that come to mind? Most likely you’d think about the factors that contribute to their safety and how to keep them safe. These factors probably include food, clothing, transportation, medical appointments, and activities of daily living.

In the background, beyond what you think of first, is the support person providing such items, the caregiver who is most likely a family member. That person gives so much of their time, energy, and heart to supporting, caring for, and providing for their loved one. Family caregivers are rarely thought about in the realm of mental health, which is a significant missed opportunity.

In the months leading up to my having to complete a final research project for the MSW program at SJSU, I met a few family caregivers of people with mental illness that provided me with a window into the unique demands and stressors that caregivers face. Therefore, I used my culminating research paper to examine what caregivers need in order to support their well-being.

My project showed that people with mental illness do better when their caregivers do better and have substantial support structures. I examined the well-being of family caregivers of people with severe mental illness and looked at how mental illness stigma and self-care impact their well-being. With the new knowledge and understanding I gained from my research, I am much more able to empathize with their efforts in caring for their loved ones, as well as for themselves.

RELATED: More about the MSW Research Capstone Award

RELATED: Read what inspired the 2015 MSW Research Award Winners

Rachel Ruiz, "The Reduction of the Juvenile Justice Population and Changing Mental Health Needs”

I became interested in my research topic because I worked with youth who had justice involvement in my first year practicum. Providing counseling at a school site, I became astutely aware of the trauma that many of my clients had experienced. On top of this, involvement in the justice system and the experience of incarceration can have dramatic impacts on youth, who are in a vulnerable developmental stage. I connected with my professor and the Director of our school to share my interest in researching an issue that impacted justice-involved youth. Director Dr. Melinda Hohman started her social work career as a Probation Officer and continues to partner locally with the juvenile justice system.

Dr. Hohman introduced me to Dr. Geoffrey Twitchell, the Treatment Director at San Diego County Probation, and he began to tell me about the MAYSI-2, a mental health screener used in juvenile hall, and paved the way for me to access years of valuable data. Dr. Twitchell was interested in seeing how scores had changed over time because of the substantial decrease in the juvenile population in San Diego, mirroring state and national trends. Together we came up with the research question, to look at how legislation has impacted the decrease in the population and what mental health characteristics look like for those who remain in the system.

Our results showed that drug policy reform really is having an effect on diverting youth from the juvenile justice system. We also found that the number of Trauma Experiences predicts higher scores on other mental health indicators, further solidifying the relationship between trauma and symptoms of anger, depression, anxiety, as well as alcohol and drug use.

I’m very grateful to have experienced the process of discovering a topic, forming a research question, and finally seeing results that have real life applications to clients we serve. I strongly believe social workers can be the best researchers, because we have a strong grasp on assessment of our clients challenges and are also their greatest advocates.