Friday, September 30, 2011

Even before beginning his doctoral degree in social work, Scott Easton wanted to combat the stigmas surrounding males victimized by sexual violence. Having earned his Ph.D. in spring 2011 at the University of Iowa, Easton can make progress toward this goal. “Not only do I plan to research the effects of abuse on men, but I hope to raise awareness in the community about this issue,” said Easton.

With a long-held interest in mental health, Easton learned about male sexual abuse while earning a master’s degree in social work at the UI. A visiting professor told a class of students about the lack of research on male survivors of child sexual abuse. Easton saw this not only as a good dissertation topic, but also as an important opportunity to make a difference.

As part of his research, Easton studied mental health conditions in men with a history of child sexual abuse. He found some troubling trends. For example, the longer it takes a victim to tell someone about their experience, the more susceptible they will be to mental health problems as adults. Victims who have negative experiences when they do talk about the abuse are also more prone to suffer mental health problems in adulthood.

“It’s really important for male survivors to talk about their abuse with someone who’s empathetic and supportive,” Easton said. “It’s important for male survivors to process what happened to them and not just say ‘the past is the past.’ This may mean going back and making sense of it.”

Easton also found a key correlation between victims’ adherence to masculine social norms and their likelihood to talk about the abuse. The stigma surrounding male sexual abuse can prevent or delay discussion about the abuse for some victims. “Being tough and macho may have helped them get by up to this point, but it may not be good for their overall mental health,” Easton said.

Easton’s path toward a career in social work has included some interesting turns. As an undergraduate at Harvard University, he studied American government and contemplated a career working for the government or possibly as a politician. After graduating, he received a Rockefeller Fellowship and traveled to Israel, where he spent a year studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before serving as the media director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a non-profit in Washington D.C.

Easton enjoyed his work, but it was a strenuous job that led to health problems. He decided to return to the Midwest and worked at different organizations, including five years in the Office of Admissions at the University of Iowa. In time, he realized he wanted to go back to school to study social work. Interacting with others one-on-one as a therapist, he said, would help him to make a difference in peoples’ lives. He has worked at a local agency for the past several years providing psychotherapy to adults.

Though Easton began his graduate program more than a decade after completing his undergraduate work, he has no regrets. “The years between degrees were invaluable,” he said. “The personal accomplishments and setbacks helped me to grow and to hone my interests.”

Life benchmarks, such as the birth of his daughter while getting his master’s and the birth of his son during his doctorate work, helped him focus and stay balanced. “The life experiences were extremely valuable. They made me a better therapist and teacher,” the 44-year-old said.

Easton also credited the unwavering support from UI faculty as great motivation for attaining his Ph.D. “I think Mr. Easton is one of the most outstanding students that I have worked with during my nearly 20 years of employment at the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa,” said Carol Coohey, professor in the School of Social Work who has collaborated with Easton on multiple research endeavors. She has no doubt he will continue to be an important contributor in the field of mental health.

Throughout his education, Easton has received generous funding to support his research, including a Hartford Doctoral Fellowship, Paleologos Graduate Fellowship, and several other fellowships and assistantships through the UI Graduate College.

This fall, Easton began as an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Boston College.