By Kellye Coleman
Caregivers can face special challenges when helping clients with emotional, behavioral and learning disabilities. Leigh Ann Stutts ’11 explores these challenges and exposes gaps in caregiver training – including the need to learn forgiveness – in a recent edition of the The Open Mind, the newsletter of the Durham, N.C., chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“Helping Caregivers Deal with Forgiveness,” a condensed excerpt from Stutts’ philosophy senior seminar paper, argues that those working with special needs children should be trained in how to cope with and respond to verbal and physical abuse. Neglecting the emotions that result from such abuse can easily strain caregiver-client relationships, she writes.
Stutts, a philosophy and psychology double major from Clayton, N.C., has encountered this firsthand. Last summer, she served as a counselor at a camp designed to be a safe environment for campers to engage in a variety of traditional summer camp activities.
Many campers were there to learn strategies for controlling their emotions and behaviors, but some incidents escalated. “I was called all sorts of terrible names, had rocks thrown at every part of my body, and even had a camper punch me in the stomach,” Stutts said. “It seemed as if I, and the other counselors, were just supposed to expect such behavior and ‘get over it’ because of the population we were working with.”
The hurt she felt, and its negative effect on her relationships with campers, caused Stutts to start asking questions about her training. “In reality, I wasn’t properly dealing with and coming to terms with the hurt certain campers had caused me,” she said. When she started her senior seminar the next semester, she sought answers.
“I researched philosophers who had written on the topics of dependency care work, as well as forgiveness. I noticed that nobody had ever combined the two topics,” she said. “I have talked with various people in the field and many have reported similar stories where they felt like they didn’t have time to come to terms with what happened or were still hesitant to interact with a client due to an incident that was not addressed fully and properly.”
Professor Ann Cahill, recipient of Elon University’s 2011-12 Distinguished Scholar Award and chair of the Department of Philosophy, said Stutts’ experience gave energy to the project.
“She wasn’t just writing this paper to complete the requirements for a class. She had had an experience that required philosophical analysis to make sense out of it,” Cahill said. “It’s wonderful when a student’s research question is motivated in this way.”
Stutts concluded that those working in the mental health field need more support as they try to come to terms with negative experiences. Her ideal solution is for agencies and organizations to hire an employee whose sole responsibility is to serve as a support system for caregivers.
“I strongly believe that all types of mental health agencies would benefit from having this type of third party support,” she said. “I certainly do hope this work has an impact on the mental health community.”
Cahill said she agrees. “Leigh Ann’s work has the potential to illuminate for all of us the demands that are placed on care workers, and to help provide them with the holistic support that their terrifically important work requires.”
Despite the challenges she has experienced, Stutts says she hopes to work with children and families impacted by mental illness as a licensed therapist. She will begin a graduate program in social work at Wheelock College in the fall, armed with skills she’s developed during her time at Elon. “My time at Camp Starfish could have been just another summer job,” she said. “However, due to the academic training I had at Elon, I became engaged in the situation, thought critically about what was going on and felt confident enough to explore the questions that were left unanswered.”