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Dr. Susan Swearer – Behavioral Health Clinic 25th Anniversary Inside Look

November 15th, 2019     By Boys Town Contributor

Behavior, Boys Town History, Bully, Healing Families, Mental Health, Quality Care, Saving Children, Understanding Behavior

The Boys Town Center for Behavioral Health is celebrating 25 years of service to children and families in the Omaha area.

For a quarter century, the Center has provided life-changing therapy, treatment and specialty services to the emotionally fragile and behaviorally troubled. The Center also has a renowned internship and post-doctoral program, offering unrivaled training, research and clinical opportunities to educate and prepare future psychologists.

To mark this milestone anniversary, the Center is spotlighting some of its former interns and post-doctoral scholars whose careers have been shaped by their Boys Town experience.

We recently sat down with Dr. Susan Swearer, a 1995-96 intern, to catch up on her career, reminisce about her internship at the Center and discover how she caught the attention of a pop star and a president.

Dr. Swearer is the Willa Cather Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Co-Director of the Bullying Research Network.  

You're one of the country's foremost experts on bullying, including issues of victimization and empowerment. How did bullying become your research focus?   

I was always interested in studying children's internalizing and externalizing problems and how to help them cope and recover. When I finished my dissertation in 1997, I accepted a teaching position in the school psychology program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). There was a school counselor in one of my classes who asked if I could help address a big bullying problem at her school. I agreed and started one of the first small-scale longitudinal studies involving a cohort of kids throughout their middle school years who were involved in bullying dynamics, from perpetration to victimization to both. And that set the course for my career.

Why is bullying such a persistent problem in schools and society in general?

A Canadian colleague of mine coined the phrase, "Bullying is a social relationship problem," and that sums up why it's a difficult problem to stop. Social relationships are really complicated and lots of factors can play into what makes a healthy relationship versus an unhealthy relationship. Issues like homophobia, xenophobia, sexism and racism are all really intense societal issues that underly some of the reasons why people engage in bullying behaviors. It's not a simple problem.

Your work on bullying led to a collaboration with singer-songwriter Lady Gaga and her Born This Way Foundation. How did that come about?

Gaga's former senior advisor for philanthropy is a UNL graduate. In 2011, he was doing some informal conversations with researchers about bullying and the direction Gaga's foundation might go. Bullying was an issue important to her because she was bullied in high school.  

Can you describe your role and what you did with the foundation?

The foundation has always had a strong interest in research and making sure the work it does is grounded in best practices. From 2013 to 2016, I was chair of its research advisory board. During Gaga's Born This Way Ball tour, the foundation's Born Brave Bus traveled to each concert venue. I oversaw the behavioral health pod on the Born Brave Bus. The whole event was an interactive experience with lots of music, food, games and information. Concertgoers and others had a chance to connect with local resources on bullying and suicide prevention, behavioral and mental health services, and volunteer opportunities.

It was really an honor, and it was my sabbatical research project. We collected some very interesting data, and it was great in terms of how that influenced my thinking. My work now has moved more into how to promote ideas of kindness and bravery, which I see as an anecdote to bullying behaviors. It's been a great opportunity to think about bullying from a different perspective.      

From the pop star to the president. In 2011, you also were invited to the White House to talk about bullying. How was that experience?

I was proud to be a presenter at the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention. President Obama and First Lady Michelle hosted the event for approximately 100 invited guests, including students, parents, educators and policymakers. It was a cool experience. At that time, the White House hosted several summits related to bullying intervention. One result of those events was the launch of the website. I was a consultant and contributor to the site, and it's a great resource for parents, teachers and anybody who's interested in bullying prevention and intervention.

How did your Boys Town internship prepare you for those opportunities and the success you've had in your career?

Boys Town was instrumental in the trajectory of my career and thinking about a holistic approach to working with children dealing with a variety of issues and the importance of creating an environment where kids can thrive. I think the Boys Town Model® is so important as we think about how our communities and schools are organized. And again, bringing it back to the Born Brave Bus, how do we create these caring, supportive communities. That's what Boys Town is all about.

Why did you choose the Boys Town Center for Behavioral Health for your internship?

Honestly, I had never heard of Boys Town. I was an East Coast kid who had no idea about the middle of the country. I'm embarrassed to admit this but at some point during my interview, I remember asking if Father Flanagan was still alive! But the deciding factor for me was when Dr. Pat Friman (long-time Center director) called me. We had an incredible conversation, and I thought it would be amazing to be supervised by him and do my internship there.

How would you describe your experience, and what would you say to others considering the Center's internship and post-doctoral program?

It's a life-changing experience. The level of supervision is fantastic, and the facilities are amazing. It was always an incredibly gorgeous campus with great access to psychologists and well-trained professionals. When you're out in the real world, you just don't have access to that level of support. It's an incredible place to be an intern.

Thank you, Dr. Swearer!

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