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Schools of medicine and social work to study how demands impact working families with children with special needs

The School of Medicine and School of Social Work have received a two-year grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF) to study how demands on working families with children with special needs affect parental well-being and workplace attitudes.

Susan Girdler, professor of psychiatry and psychology, and Tamara Norris, director of the Family Support Program, will direct the new project, which focuses on identifying how families are impacted when their children experience significant life and educational transitions, such as moving from high school into adulthood and the working world.

Girdler and Norris are particularly interested in understanding the psychosocial needs of families, including for early career physician scientists at UNC. Research has found that young faculty members are especially at risk for burnout early in their careers because of the challenges of balancing research activities and workplace demands with caring for a child with special needs, Norris explained.

“Many of these physician scientists are women and are at increased risk of leaving the workplace due to extraordinary caregiving responsibilities”, Norris said. “They just have tremendous strains on them, particularly when they are trying to get tenure. Fundamentally, UNC is interested in supporting these physician scientists so they can stay in the workforce.”

The $5,000 grant follows $540,000 in funding that UNC received two years ago from DDCF to support a 5-year initiative to help early career physician scientists continue their patient-centered research amid extra-professional caregiving demands. Part of that initial funding was used to create the UNC School of Medicine’s Caregivers at Carolina Program, which Girdler co-directs along with Amelia Drake, M.D. The program provides mentoring and additional support to physician scientists balancing their careers with caregiving for a loved one.

The latest grant will be used to conduct focus groups with a variety of working families with children who have special needs, including UNC faculty and those who work outside the academic and medical profession.

“The goal is to see if there’s any difference in terms of the impact on the workplace, family stress, and so forth,” Norris said. “So often, families say they fall off the cliff once their kids leave the public school system. What happens is that these families have been caring for their child and receiving services, but the adult services are significantly different. So we’re looking specifically at families who have experienced that kind of transition so that we can learn what worked for them, what didn’t and what they can share with other families.”

Norris is hopeful that the information gathered from the focus groups may also help to inform a parallel effort she is leading to develop a greater Triangle affiliate of the Family Support Network™ of North Carolina, a statewide organization of services and supports for parents of children with special needs and for providers serving these families. The network currently includes 11 affiliates across the state.

“A new affiliate in the greater Triangle area could really help us to identify special populations that would benefit from family support and really help us put a finger on the current needs of families,” Norris said. “Then if any promising interventions are developed, we have a stronger network to share this information with across the state so that ultimately, all families could benefit.”