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New faculty aim to make lasting impact in research and in the classroom

Each academic year, the School of Social Work welcomes new faculty members, each of whom brings to UNC’s campus a wealth of research expertise, direct practice experience, and personal passion. These scholars join a community of social work colleagues and students who are eager to address real-world problems by helping to shape policies, programs and direct service interventions that bring about positive change.
This year, we welcome Rachel Woodson Goode, Ph.D., MPH, and Will Hall, Ph.D. ‘15, MSW ’12 as our newest assistant professors to the School.

Goode aims to make lasting impact on research on obesity and weight loss

When Rachel Woodson Goode, Ph.D.,MPH, decided to focus her research on obesity and weight loss, particularly among African American women, two things became clear. First, although Black women have the highest rate of obesity in the country, they haven’t performed well in behavioral weight loss interventions. Second, social workers have not been historically involved in a lot of the discussions around obesity.

Goode, a new assistant professor at the School, aims to change that narrative. Her goal: to improve treatment and healthy outcomes for African Americans who have struggled with their weight and to demonstrate to social workers, including students in her classroom, that they have an important role to play in addressing the obesity epidemic.

“There are a lot of things that contribute to a person’s weight, including environmental concerns, racial health disparities, and access to food,” Goode explained. “One area that really hasn’t been explored is how can we, as social workers, begin to help people who are battling a myriad of situations address those psychological and emotional barriers in their environment so that they can begin to make forward development. I think social workers have an opportunity, knowing what we know about the environment and systemic barriers that people face, to begin to put our foot in the door. Then, we can begin to offer our services because we know weight loss challenges for many people are more than just, ‘I didn’t eat the right calories or exercise today.’ We know it’s more complex than that.”

Goode, who earned her undergrad degree in psychology, gravitated toward social work after spending several summers in Pittsburgh, where she worked with an organization that serves low-income families, children and the elderly. That experience, she said, challenged her idea about advocacy work and redirected her professionally. She needed to be “a voice for those who may not have a voice in society.”

Goode knows she’ll encounter students who are equally searching to make an impact, and she is eager to learn from their experiences.

“For me, I wanted to be able to do something that would have a lasting legacy and that would help address the greatest needs,” she said, “and I thought being trained as a social worker would help me accomplish those goals.”

Today, Goode’s primary research is driven by a desire to reverse a national trend where four out of five African American women are overweight or obese, according to the U.S. Office of Minority Health (OMH). Such disparities can have long-lasting consequences. According to the OMH, the rates of deaths from heart disease and stroke are almost twice as high among African Americans than Whites.

As someone who has struggled with her own weight over the years and watched many within her family do the same, Goode is determined to help African American women re-think their relationship with food, both physically and spiritually. Her pilot study, “A Feasibility Study to Reduce Binge Eating in African-American Women,” tests the Appetite Awareness Training (AAT) intervention, a program created by Dr. Linda Craighead, a psychology professor at Emory University. Goode’s research study evaluates an eight-week version of AAT, teaching participants to recognize the biological signs of when their bodies are hungry and when they are full.

“Part of what I realized when I started this weight loss journey is that I really didn’t know how to eat,” Goode said. “We often face this challenge because in American culture, our portion sizes are huge, and we’ve grown up with the idea that you have to clean your plate. Our parents were raised with that thought, and it’s just a legacy since the Great Depression of not wasting food.”

The intervention also brings participants together as a group to discuss and address challenges with emotional eating and the barriers to making healthier eating choices, especially when surrounded with fast-food restaurants offering cheap high-calorie options.

In the future, Goode, who identifies as Christian, would like to incorporate a faith-based approach into the program because she wants to help participants free themselves from the stress and worry of losing weight. Long-term, she hopes to develop a weight loss ministry – an effort, she added, is well-suited for social workers who could help guide individuals as they work to regain their control over food.

“I really want to take it back to the community and have a nonprofit program where people can have access to someone who will hold their hand along the way,” Goode said. “That’s where I think social workers can really step in, and we can use our skillset to help support someone on this journey.”

Hall focused on groundbreaking work to support LGBTQ+ youth

Will Hall is well aware that his research on the mental health of LGBTQ+ youth is territory that few others have explored. For Hall, such a focus is necessary to further support gay, lesbian and queer youth, many of whom, he said, are more likely to be involved in the child welfare system, to be homeless, to be depressed or to attempt suicide and drop out of school than youth who are not LGBTQ+.

Hall views this work from a very personal lens – he once struggled to accept his own sexual orientation. As a gay man, he’s fought his own battles with internalized homophobia and understands the overwhelming anxiety that many young people often feel when coming out to friends, family and others. In fact, that knowledge fuels his determination as a researcher to make that process less painful for gay and questioning youth.

“I grew up in the South in a very small, traditional, religiously conservative town, and it took me years to be OK with being gay,” said Hall, who came out in his 20s. “Today, I know there are tons of young people, especially in the South and in rural areas, who are growing up stigmatized and who are feeling ashamed as I once felt. And because I made it through that journey and grew and learned things, I feel like this is my calling now. I want it to help make that journey easier for other people.”

Hall has been preparing for his newest academic role for the last 13 years. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Carolina in 2004, Hall knew he wanted to go back to school but was unsure of what to pursue until a friend in the MSW program encouraged him to apply. Hall found the field of social work a perfect fit for his interest in mental health and social justice.

As a teacher who prefers engaged discussion over lecturing, Hall said he’s eager to share what he’s learned with students and to learn from them. He’s also determined to make an impact in the classroom and in his research.

“I’m always thinking about how can research be more useful, especially when thinking about all the services that are provided, the interventions that are developed and the laws and policies that are put into place – is there evidence that any of these are effective and that they help to improve people’s quality of life. That’s where I want my research to go and to focus on.”

Hall’s current research project could be an important step forward in improving the mental health of LGBTQ+ youth. Earlier this year, he was awarded a $2,000 pilot grant for a feasibility study that will focus on an adapted cognitive behavioral therapy intervention that Hall has developed to treat depression in lesbian, gay and bisexual youth. The intervention, BOWS (Being Out With Strength), targets internalized homophobia and oppression by using small group activities that promote positive identity beliefs in LGBTQ+ youth.

The work is potentially groundbreaking because few similar programs exist to help young people better manage the coming out process, especially those struggling with depression related to family and peer rejection or internalized homophobia.
“The idea is to use cognitive strategies to get them to shift their thinking so that they realize they are not abnormal or immoral. They are exactly who they are supposed to be, and that’s OK,” Hall said.

With many more gay and queer youth identifying at earlier ages, the BOWS intervention could be a helpful tool for school social workers seeking ways to improve the climate for LGBTQ+ students, especially if they are being bullied by classmates, Hall said.

“School social workers provide mental health services, and they work with this community,” he said. “But I think a lot of social workers oftentimes aren’t sure how to provide services to a client who may have been rejected by their parents. So I think we need to offer this practical knowledge and skills for practitioners so they can be more effective in what they do.”
And if social workers are more effective, then there’s a greater chance they’re making the kind of difference that Hall is determined his work will do.

“We have all this evidence of the disparities and inequities that the LGBTQ population is facing, and it’s all kinds of social work issues,” he said. “So there are these needs there that must be addressed, and I think social workers are prime people to be allies and advocates and to help make things better for the community.”