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Social work course on compassion helps student connect with hospital patients

Learning to show unconditional positive regard for all groups of people is seen as having broad applications across professional disciplines

Steve Jones

The Spalding University School of Social Work believes so strongly that compassion is key to creating social change that it now offers a course – Compassionate Social Justice – on that specific concept.

It’s made an immediate impact on at least one social work student who is preparing for a career working in health care.

During her social work practicum last year at Jewish Hospital, Jonetta Meddis said she was able to directly apply the skills she’d learned from the classroom toward her conversations with patients.

For her practicum, Meddis was an intern whose role was to communicate with and gather information from patients, including many who were in the hospital for complications related to addiction and substance abuse.

As is common with people who are hospitalized while struggling with addiction, many of them didn’t want to be there, felt angry or mistrustful and were adamant about leaving, even if it was against medical advice. Part of Meddis’ job was to help convince them to stay and get the care and services they needed.

Thanks in part to the skills she learned in the School of Social Work’s Compassionate Social Justice course, Meddis was able to make inroads with many patients and helped steer them in the right direction.

She listened. She made them feel heard. She treated them as her equal and respected their perspective.

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“Mainly I just wanted to be an ear because they may not have people in their life who listen to them, believe in them or understand what their situation is, and not just brush them off,” said Meddis, who earned her Bachelor of Science in Social Work degree from Spalding in June and is now enrolled in the Master of Social Work program.

Now in its second year at Spalding, Compassionate Social Justice is an online undergraduate course taught by adjunct professor Diane Wright, a licensed social worker who serves as the Vice President of Quality Management and Compliance for Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health Services.

Wright’s class, which is being offered in Session 2 and is open as an elective to any undergraduate in any major, emphasizes the importance of communication, listening and looking past stereotypes in order to show unconditional positive regard to all groups of people.

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Students’ assignments include conducting a conscious act of kindness, then writing a reflection paper.

“Instead of walking by a homeless person, talk to them and bring them food,” Wright said. “Or surprise a family member by cooking them a meal or cleaning their house.”

Students have been surprised to find that the people on the receiving end of simple acts of kindness are often extremely moved by the gesture, Wright said.

“The students had a whole new perspective on thinking about others and adding others to the equation as they make their way through their day,” Wright said. “For a lot of traditional college students, they’re in a stage in life when this is a new thing. So for a lot of students, this is a very powerful thing.”

Thanks to skills learned in Wright’s compassion course, Meddis said, she became more self-aware of her own body language and facial expressions as she talked to patients at her practicum. She never wanted to present herself as anything but the patient’s equal, and she said she never used phrases like, “I understand what you’re going through,” because if she’d never actually experienced what the patient is going through, the words would ring hollow.

Wright and Dr. Stacy Deck, Director of Undergraduate Education in the School of Social Work, said the Compassionate Social Justice course would be a valuable one for students in any major at Spalding. Future nurses, teachers and business professionals, for example, all could benefit from skills that help them better understand the personal struggles, frustrations and misgivings experienced by their patients, students and clients.

“It’s an excellent course as a foundation for social workers, but it’s an excellent place for any student to start their academic career at Spalding or to deepen their academic journey,” Deck said. “No matter what your academic concentration, Diane has a way of making that compassion that we aspire to, very concrete and letting us see what it looks like in action.”

Those interested in registering for Compassionate Social Justice for Session 2 may contact School of Social Work Undergraduate Education Director Dr. Stacy Deck at sdeck@spalding.edu. The course is open to any Spalding undergrad, in any major.