Big Dreams for a Better Community

“When I started college, I thought I wanted to be a medical doctor,” said alumna Karen Haggard, LCSW, (’91 psychology, ’94 MSW). “I knew I wanted to work in the sciences. Along the way it became clear that I was more interested in the underlying psychological issues that impacted individuals, and individuals in relation to communities. I wanted to learn how to address those issues.”

Karen Haggard

Karen Haggard. Photo courtesy of Haggard

Over time, Haggard’s desire to prevent suffering has grown even stronger and more tangible as her career has advanced to include her role as Northwest Illinois District Chair of the largest organization of professional social workers in the world, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).

After transferring to the UIC Department of Psychology from a small, private university, a change in direction was not a problem for Haggard. “Coming here as an undergrad felt like I had finally found my place in the world,” Haggard recalled.

The LAS faculty’s research-centric approach allowed her to take more advanced and specialized psychology courses. It also connected her with her first mentor, Gershon Berkson, LAS emeritus professor of psychology. “He had a tremendous impact upon my educational and professional path. It was his recommendation of a book by Dorothea Dix—one of the first social workers—that inspired me to follow her path and advocate for the powerless and the mentally ill.

“My undergraduate work in psychology at LAS provided me with a very strong theoretical and practical background,” Haggard said. “It gave me the opportunity to assist in research for several professors and complete an internship that provided valuable experience and marketability post-graduation. I also worked on UIC’s suicide prevention hotline. It was during this time, working under the supervision and mentorship of experienced professionals, that I learned about crisis intervention first hand. It was a very positive experience for me.”

Her time at UIC also made it possible for Haggard to advance her study to further align with an interest in policy and social justice. With her psychology background, and the guidance of Dr. Berkson, Haggard completed a master’s degree in social work at the UIC Jane Addams College of Social Work. “I found that I was specifically interested in direct-service interaction—connecting people with what they need,” Haggard said. “I also liked the fact that JACSW has a primary focus on policy and social justice.”

Following graduate school, Haggard developed a focus on treating trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for veterans, as well as others who have suffered trauma. She now has a private practice and also serves as a readjustment counselor at the Vet Center of Rockford.

Individuals suffering from PTSD, Haggard found, have spouses and children who also exhibit symptoms of PTSD. This results in trauma that is multi-generational. “Research is not clear as of yet whether the PTSD symptoms exhibited by family members of the identified client are learned, or the result of secondary trauma, but many families are struggling with primary and secondary symptoms of PTSD,” Haggard said.

For Haggard, this revelation speaks to a reality that PTSD is more common than most believe. “The most common cause of PTSD in the general population is actually car accidents,” she explained, noting that “drivers should expect to be involved in an average of six car accidents during their lifetime.”

One way in which Haggard strives to promote awareness of PTSD in everyday life is through her role in the leadership of the NASW, the mission of which is to enhance professional growth and development of its members, create and maintain professional standards, and advance sound social policies. As chair of the Jane Addams district servicing Northwest Illinois, Haggard works to improve networking and training for social workers, planning and hosting frequent continuing education opportunities. She said that she hopes “to create a more collegial environment for all social workers in my area.”

Haggard has even more on her horizon. This year she opened a private practice, which she calls one of her “most exciting professional challenges yet.” Despite her busy schedule, Haggard is not daunted. “My vision is to have a one-stop shop offering intensive treatment and family support to address the symptoms that are impacting and preventing forward motion for clients suffering from PTSD,” Haggard said. “I would like this facility to contribute to our knowledge of PTSD and associated behavioral health issues through strong research efforts. I know it’s a big dream, and a very large goal, but they say that if your goal doesn’t scare you, you need to find another one.”