For Dr. Sarah Dolan, research is felt most deeply in the context of community. Dolan’s nationally-recognized research has aided communities, both in Central Texas and beyond, since she came to Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences in 2007. An associate professor of psychology, Dolan often finds research leading her away from campus borders and into places where people experience trauma. Her approach is distinct. Dolan often helps those who help others, such as firemen, soldiers or other psychologists, which leads to meaningful insights and research that is magnified. “I was raised with a sense that you have an obligation to give back,” Dolan says. “That’s one of the reasons I came to Baylor. It’s a place where you can really take your expertise as an academic researcher and impact the community around you.”
Whether that community is literal — a city like West, Texas — or a less-rigidly defined group of people who share common experiences or life-stages, they’ll inevitably experience challenging moments. In the spaces between those moments, Dolan blends a mix of research-based expertise and human empathy to help people find the skills and the strength to cope.
Helping West Heal
Generations of travelers to Baylor have made the city of West, Texas, a regular stop on their way to or from campus. A tightly-knit town of 3,000 people, West has long been renowned among Texans for its Czech heritage and delicious baked goods. On April 17, 2013, the world came to know the community for a different reason.
That evening, the West Fertilizer Plant caught fire and exploded. Located perilously close to scores of homes and the local high school, the disaster claimed 15 lives, injured hundreds and destroyed dozens of homes. Its impact was most acutely felt by firefighters, police officers, emergency workers and their families. Among the roll of those killed in the blast were 12 first responders. As they sought to serve their hometown amidst its darkest moment, many of them were trying to process the loss of colleagues and friends, as well as their own homes in the area.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Dolan and Baylor colleagues formed a volunteer crisis intervention team to provide free assistance to West residents as they coped. Partnering with Dr. James Ellor, from Baylor’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, she met with people wherever needed. In fire stations, private homes, makeshift trailers and more, first responders came to find assistance as they processed their own psychological needs. One first responder described their work as nothing short of “rescuing the rescuers,” enabling them to harness the strength they needed to serve amidst the sadness.
Their time wasn’t limited to first responders; other West residents also found a listening ear and wise counsel as they met with Dolan and her colleagues. Partnering with state and local agencies, the Baylor team would learn of individuals needing psychological assistance and would go wherever needed. Through hundreds of hours and hundreds of counseling sessions, Dolan noticed a vital trait emerging within the people of West. “I learned that, even in disaster, people are very resilient,” Dolan says. “I saw people discover that trauma doesn’t have to be a permanent scar on their soul and they’re going to recover.”
Dolan and Ellor collated the experiences into published research and community partnerships. The research focused on how clergy can partner with psychologists to engage their spiritual needs, scholarship that advanced understanding of the role of religious beliefs in healing. The explosion also revealed the importance of preparation before a traumatic event, which has led to lasting change. Through the creation of the Psychological Intervention Team within the McLennan County Reserve Corps, Dolan, Ellor and other educators continue to partner with individuals in the community who serve across a variety of disciplines in times of crisis. There, they provide behavioral health training that imbues other leaders with the skills to help others cope.
More recently, Dolan served a different type of community — young people bound by trauma, and the mental health professionals who serve them. Earlier this year, Dolan received a $3 million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to help refine and improve the process of assessing children as they process trauma. The fruit of her work will be the development and implementation of new assessment methods to help clinicians more accurately pinpoint the needs of children between the ages of 8 and 16.
“Very few people are focusing on developing best practices for assessment,” Dolan says. “It’s encouraging and heartening that SAMHSA is investing in this project, to train clinicians in ways that will spread best practices nationally outside the university academic setting and into everyday settings that impact the community.”
Along with her collaborators, Dr. Stacy Ryan-Pettes, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor, and Dr. Jeff Wherry, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas at Tyler, Dolan is developing evidence-based assessments (EBA) to help clinicians make the most of the all-important step before treatment. It’s common in counseling to move quickly to treatment, but a deliberate assessment can help clinicians recognize underlying issues sometimes missed through uniform assessment.
“Quick, inexpensive assessments sometimes miss critical things in the process,” Dolan says. “You might be missing that a child has suicidal thoughts because those questions are not being asked in a standard assessment. You could miss that they’re depressed. By just focusing on the trauma, which is important, you could exclude other things that are going on that are treatable and are very important to the kids.”
More than 800 clinicians will participate in the training over the next five years, providing them with new tools to measure the individualized issues a child with trauma could face. Further research will follow up with those trained to determine which assessments were most effective “The faster we get children to the right treatment,” Dolan says, “the faster they’re going to get better and get back on a healthy developmental trajectory.”
A Research Focus
Such projects tell only part of the story of a career-long pattern of service through scholarship. Dolan also partners with the Waco Veterans Affairs (VA) Center for Excellence, assisting returning veterans with the unique pressures they face. Through her work on the Texas Psychological Association’s Disaster Response Network, she’s helped individuals after natural disasters like hurricanes, fires and more. The people she serves aren’t the only ones who notice.
Last winter, Dolan was named by the American Psychological Association (APA) as one of just 30 “citizen psychologists” nationally. According to the APA, citizen psychologists “serve as leaders in their various communities and..contribute to improving people’s lives.” The honor is particularly meaningful to someone who has long seen research and scholarship as a direct way to help others.
"That's very special and a symbol that I've been able to come here to Baylor and make a positive impact on the community as a research-based psychologist who cares about people and their wellbeing,” Dolan says.
The words “research-based” are important to Dolan, who realized in college that, through research, she could help more people than if she focused on one-on-one counseling. That conviction leads to excitement when she thinks about Baylor’s increased research focus through Illuminate, Baylor’s strategic plan, and the aspiration to become an R1/Tier 1 university.
“You can help so many people through research, and I'm thrilled that research is more of a primary focus here at Baylor,” Dolan says. “With everyone paddling in the same direction, I think Baylor is in a really great position to impact an even larger segment of the community, and it's exciting to be a part.”