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Expanding access and reducing stigma for mental health services

Dustin Dilley (MSW, ’21)

Serving in the Army National Guard has inspired one West Virginia University student to pursue a career combating stigmas surrounding mental health.

Green Bank native Dustin Dilley, a first-year Master of Social Work student, first learned about the social work profession while completing the National Guard’s basic leader course in South Carolina. 

Dustin Dilley

“Veterans’ mental health is just now starting to get attention because there is less stigma around having post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses. Being around fellow servicemembers, hearing their experiences and observing the need for treatment was enlightening,” Dilley said. “My basic leader course talked a lot about career plans and identifying needs for more providers for veterans. Many servicemembers have an interest in pursuing social work careers to support those needs, and they talked about the value of having a Master of Social Work.”

Since joining WVU’s School of Social Work in fall 2019, Dilley has interned at the WVU Medicine United Summit Center’s Fairmont clinic. He supports outpatient therapy sessions with individuals from ages 4 through late 50s, many of whom are managing substance use disorder or are impacted by family members who struggle with it.

“Most of the adults and teenagers are treated for diagnoses like anxiety and depression. Their sessions often involve talking through their days and any situations weighing on them. We can discuss it and their emotional responses to those situations,” Dilley said. “That’s when we incorporate cognitive behavior therapy. When young adults are in the stages of maturation and their emotions are unpredictable, they tend to think the worst of situations. We help them identify where those thoughts originate and help them change the narrative.”

Dilley also spends one day per week at Rivesville Elementary School offering play therapy to help children recognize and manage their emotions.

“This placement is helping me learn what school social work is like,” Dilley said. “We typically see children with behavioral issues. They may have trouble with emotional regulation or staying on task. Those sessions are less conversational because children typically express themselves through play.” 

Dilley is also a graduate research assistant for the School of Social Work’s Strengthening Training for Addiction Recovery project. Funded by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources and in conjunction with the West Virginia Statewide Opioid Response, this project seeks to grow and improve the West Virginia social work workforce to intervene in substance use disorders in meaningful and measurable ways.

Through STAR, the School of Social Work provides substance use disorder-related training and field education experiences. In this role, Dilley has conducted data analysis to gauge mental health providers’ attitudes and perceptions of substance use disorders to inform future trainings and curricula.  

“We are working diligently to help prepare social workers to serve individuals and communities affected by addiction and trauma. Students bringing military experience, like Dustin, are crucial to helping us expand access and reduce the stigma around counseling and mental health needs,” said Jeni Gamble, the School of Social Work’s field education director. “So many West Virginians have proudly served and are looking for ways to support their communities as well as break down the barriers in addressing trauma. Social workers are making differences in schools, counseling centers and in agencies throughout the state, and we are thrilled to have more service men and women joining our work.” 

Dilley hopes all of these experiences lead to a career in inpatient or outpatient substance use treatment in West Virginia. 

“West Virginia has a huge need for social workers and therapists,” Dilley said. “When I was thinking about how to my position myself for the best chances for future employment, I knew WVU was the right fit for my graduate degree. WVU’s School of Social Work has so many connections and opportunities. I knew WVU would be the best place to be to set myself up for future success.”

This article is part of a series highlighting WVU School of Social Work students during National Social Work Month.