Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, Tanya Kvarta described her own childhood as idyllic and infused with traditional American values of self-sufficiency and hard work. Her parents both ran small businesses, and she went to college earn a degree in Art Education K-12 at Seton Hill and St. Vincent College. Realizing that art therapy also provided effective coping skills to students who struggled, Tanya decided to pursue a master’s degree in social work (MSW) at the Johnstown regional campus, to develop her own skills and to help people with mental health and intellectual disabilities. Now, as executive director of Behavioral Health of Cambria County, (BHoCC) in Johnstown, PA, Tanya oversees the mental health care for over 30,000 residents in a county with a population of approximately 125,000.
As Tanya Kvarta notes, there is still a lot of stigma around mental health issues, citing the vitriolic and cruel remarks that were sadly typical when Olympic athlete Simone Biles declared she needed to take time for mental health. The BHoCC is a private, non-profit organization and part of its mission is to “engage and educate the community about mental health issues, so people know it is a place to find help.” Kvarta continued: “Imagine if we validated mental health treatment, rather than condemned those who seek it? We don’t see it from the same perspective as a broken bone, or cancer, where seeking treatment is normal and supported by society.”
The Pitt Johnstown MSW provides several advantages for students who already have families and jobs established in areas outside of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area. The Johnstown campus is a “best of both worlds” option for those who seek a nationally recognized, top ranked and fully accredited master’s program in social work, complete with diverse and challenging field options and rigorous curriculum standards.
The Johnstown campus MSW program offers a cohort model of education that provides the emotional and professional support of a stable peer group for the length of the program and beyond, small class sizes, more 1:1 time with professors and significant tuition discounts for those already employed in non-profit social services. Applications are now being accepted for the fall term, 2022.
Yet at the same time, the Johnstown regional students can take full advantage of the main campus offerings including professional licensure preparation and a dedicated career services center that is part of the National Consortium for Career Development in Social Work Education. Only twenty-four out of two-hundred and eighty-three nationally accredited schools of social work are part of the Consortium, which meets annually to discuss issues including tracking trends in salaries and hiring. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, social work is expected to grow 12% through 2028, compared to 8% growth for all other professions. Moreover, Pitt MSW students’ ten year average for passing the licensure exam is 88% compared to a national average of 80%.
Another graduate of the Pitt Johnstown MSW program is Erika Brosig, now chief operating officer (COO) for Victim Services Inc., in Johnstown. Brosig notes that “Studies show that more than 70% of adults in the US have experienced at least one type of traumatic event as a child. While we may not all experience intensely traumatic events, we will all experience some level of trauma in our lives.” Brosig was selected by Governor Wolf’s office to be one of 25 experts who developed a multi-agency state plan designed to help all providers understand and recognize the effect of trauma on the community. The plan is called Trauma Informed PA and will be implemented as a companion to the governor’s mental health anti-stigma initiative, “Reach Out PA: Your Mental Health Matters.”
As a licensed clinical social worker (LSCW) and credentialed diplomate of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress (DAAETS), Brosig is trained to provide what she says is “one of the few evidence-based trauma treatments available to treat post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients known as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, (EMDR).” Several years back, Brosig wrote a grant to contract with the Trauma Institute in Massachusetts to train ten local clinicians in the method, which revolutionized trauma treatment in Cambria and Somerset Counties. She is now an Approved Consultant in EMDR and assists the Trauma Institute in other EMDR trainings for clinicians all over the world. Victim Services, Inc. in Johnstown anticipates treating 3,o00 people this year, helping them recover from trauma related to sexual assault, domestic violence, violent crime, homicide, and rape, which often causes debilitating long term symptoms such as panic, anxiety, depression, and self-injury.
Both Kvarta and Brosig emphasize that an important aspect of their work as leaders in social service agencies is to lead by example; helping their staffs recognize and treat their own work-related stress which inevitably comes with caring for others who struggle with trauma and mental health issues. During the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) amended their code of ethics to emphasize that self-care is a key component of ethical and professional excellence, as well as cultural competence. The School of Social Work at Pitt provides its alumni with many opportunities for continuing education including learning skills and strategies to cope with stress and burnout on a regular basis.
According to Misha Zorich who coordinates the Pitt Johnstown MSW program, most graduates of the program live and work locally, in private, for-profit, and non-profit sectors as licensed clinical social workers. It’s clear that armed with a strong desire to help others, the right education and credentials and determination to make a difference, Pitt Social Work alumnae Tanya Kvarta and Erika Brosig are making a big difference for the people of Johnstown and the community.