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Social Work manuscript competition winner explores components of strong therapeutic alliance

April 30, 2015

The Wayne State School of Social Work has named M.S.W. student Caitlin Stoltz Desjardins the winner of its 2015 Elizabeth N. Brehler Scholarship manuscript competition. The prestigious award gives Desjardins $3,000 and a seat on the committee that selects future winners.

Established in 1992 by Richard Brehler to honor the memory of his wife, who died of cancer while earning her social work degree at Wayne State, the Brehler competition asks social work students to reflect on how their personal and professional values complicate and even conflict with their social work practice. Desjardins’ submission, “Practice Makes Progress: Navigating trauma, empathy, and self-disclosure in clinical social work practice,” examines how her personal and professional experiences – including her post-B.S.W. work as a detox counselor, her recovery from trauma, her experience starting a family, and her return to the substance abuse treatment field – have helped her become a more competent and empathic clinical social worker.

Throughout her manuscript, Desjardins incorporated findings from the social work, psychoanalytic, and substance use treatment literature on how empathy develops and on how social workers can effectively and appropriately use self-disclosure with clients.

“In doing the paper, I came to understand myself a lot better, not only as a professional social worker, but also as a person,” Desjardins said. “I really wanted to use this paper as a chance to look at where I've been and how I've grown, and that required introspection, reflection, and analyzing some experiences that were really unfortunate and hard to think about. I really let go of a lot of shame and doubt I had had about my experiences, and now feel much more confident in owning and sharing my story. Because of this, I feel more prepared to relate to my clients in an authentic, meaningful way.”

This is the precisely the objective of the Brehler competition, noted Distinguished Professor Jerrold Brandell, a practicing child, adolescent, and adult psychotherapist and psychoanalyst who served as Desjardins’ faculty mentor.

“Cate’s essay was outstanding,” Brandell said, “not only as a deeply moving personal narrative, but also for its careful scholarship and creative exploration of such themes as self-disclosure, empathy, and relational authenticity – key ingredients in the construction of any effective therapeutic alliance.”

Desjardins said she is “extremely honored” to win the Brehler Award.

“I am so proud that my paper now stands with all of the other previous winning manuscripts as a continuation of Elizabeth Brehler’s legacy,” she said. “The Brehler Scholars Program is one of the many things that makes Wayne State’s social work program so unique among Michigan’s schools of social work, and I’m excited to promote this program and keep it going in whatever way I can.”

Desjardins’ manuscript, along with the other winning manuscripts from 1992 forward, can be found at http://socialwork.wayne.edu/brehler-manuscripts.php.

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