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Sonja Bohannon-Thacker, MSW ‘93: Making a difference in mental and behavioral health

Sonja Bohannon-Thacker, MSW ‘93, currently serves as the behavioral health director for Cabarrus Health Alliance in Kannapolis, North Carolina, where she has worked since 1994. In her role, Bohannon-Thacker oversees integrated behavioral health services in the county’s adult, women’s health and pediatric clinics, as well as a community-based outpatient counseling center and a harm reduction wellness center.

With the national mental health crisis and opioid epidemic intensifying across the country in recent years, Bohannon-Thacker has also focused on leading the county’s response to substance-use initiatives. In 2020, the North Carolina Public Health Association selected her to receive the “Outstanding Contributions to Social Work in Public Health Award.”

Tell us more about how Cabarrus Health Alliance (CHA) is making a difference in your community? What kind of successes have you seen with all the programs that you oversee?
We know that opioid-use disorder during pregnancy has been linked to pre-term labor, birth defects, a higher risk of unexplained infant death as well as cognitive and behavioral problems. Through our Substance Use Network (SUN) Clinic, which provides medical and clinical services to pregnant patients with a substance use disorder, we are helping to address these issues and improve the overall outcomes of mothers and their children. In partnership with primary care physicians, social services, criminal justice services, recovery support services and other agencies, the clinic offers a continuum of care to patients. This includes prenatal care with an OBGYN with specialized training in addictions, ultrasound, lab and fetal monitoring, medication assisted treatment, mental health and substance use therapy services, peer support specialist services, newborn care and more.

Above all, we focus on compassionate, non-stigmatizing, state-of-the-art prenatal care, behavioral health and social support services. And these efforts have shown great results. In particular, our patients, on average, give birth after 37 weeks (a normal pregnancy can range from 38 to 42 weeks). We also have shown success with no low-birth-weight deliveries and no maternal, fetal or neonatal deaths or severe morbidities.

CHA is also making a difference through its outpatient counseling center. We are fortunate to have three full-time therapists, which enables us to offer low and no-cost therapy to Cabarrus County residents, including individuals who are unsheltered and those leaving incarceration. Through a partnership with the district attorney’s office and the Child Advocacy Center, we also provide counseling to children and adults who have experienced trauma.

What initially sparked your interest in pursuing a career in social work, and how did that interest eventually lead you to UNC’s MSW program? 
I originally intended to pursue medicine, largely because I wanted to address the impact of pediatric cancer on families. As a 7th grader, I thought that could be accomplished by being a pediatric oncologist. However, during the spring semester of my college sophomore year, I took an elective class on the field of social work and from that moment, I realized this field is what would allow me to do the work of my heart. I researched MSW programs and found UNC to be the right place for me based on reputation. Hearing that my then mentor, Dr. Iris Carlton-LaNey would be joining the School of Social Work faculty was also an important factor in my decision to enroll in UNC.

How did your social work education and experience as a student help to clarify the problems you wanted to solve or the people you wanted to work with in your profession? 
I always knew I was interested in serving families and children. My education and experiences during my graduate work further solidified that desire. An unexpected benefit of my graduate work was gaining knowledge and understanding of organizational and community work. Although most of my career has been in direct clinical work, I have a broad understanding of systems and of how organizations operate. This knowledge has allowed me to contribute at an organizational and community level and to move into program development and management in a way that I am not sure I would have been given the opportunity without the macro, organizational coursework and experiences from graduate school.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a social worker and how have you overcome that challenge?
The most difficult challenge I have faced has been navigating how to help clients address mental, emotional and social issues while they are facing practical hardships and systemic barriers.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since graduating?  
I remember when I learned this lesson because it was a disturbing moment for me.

I learned that not all people who call themselves social workers are committed to our values and ethics. Because of this, I learned of the importance in remaining steadfastly committed to the belief in the dignity of all, the right for clients to have self-determination and the importance of clear boundaries. This lesson also solidified my commitment to social work education. To that end, I have worked as an adjunct faculty member at UNC-Charlotte, and I have served as a field instructor for various other universities over the past 25 years. I continue to be determined to convey to students the importance of our shared professional values in this work.

What advice can you offer students who are also interested in working in behavioral health? 
I encourage students to learn. Spend time soaking up the knowledge of the faculty and take advantage of every opportunity. Rather than being hyper focused on a grade, be willing to occasionally take a risk to deepen your learning. Explore what the professional social work code of ethics really means to our day-to-day work. As social workers we should not forget our commitment to our values if we go into private practice as a therapist. Our values as professional social workers require our commitment to justice rooted in the idea that all people should have equal rights, opportunity and treatment. Finally, question yourself and really spend time in self-exploration. Remember that social workers often work in environments where behavioral health is not the primary area of focus. As a result, their presence and impact on a team may be as significant as the impact they have on individual clients. Keep in mind that every job you have or role that you play sets the bar for the social workers who will follow you.

How does your social work education continue to guide your work daily?
My social work education was stellar. I was challenged, motivated, empowered and equipped. I consistently refer back to things I learned, people I encountered and values that were instilled in me all these years later. I was provided with the foundation for everything I have done and learned over the years. I truly believe I received the absolute best social work education I could have dreamed of. It means so much to me. I wish I knew how to convey that it was the experience, the people, relationships, exposures etc. that came together to create such a wonderful foundation.