New faculty member’s research may help war veterans

The unique perspectives that Hsin-hsin Huang, assistant professor of social work, brings to her field are a source of excitement for SIUE’s Department of Social Work, which acquired the Taiwan native at the beginning of the 2010 fall semester.

Huang, who has been in the United States for 20 years, received her master of science in social work at Washington University in St. Louis and her doctorate in counseling at the University of Missouri – St. Louis.

Hsin-hsin, professor of social work

A former community organizer and therapist, Huang’s background fits well with her area of research—trauma and more specifically post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in war veterans.

The fact that close to 1.6 million veterans have been deployed to fight in wars in this country speaks volumes, in and of itself, of the need for research that seeks to explain and understand the issues individuals might face after engaging in combat.

When carrying out some of her academic work, Huang—whose husband is a war veteran—found an important niche in research on PTSD and war veterans that she wanted to fill. “I thought it was interesting that in most of the research on veterans, they talk about combat exposure but they do not talk about what the veterans actually did,” explained Huang. “They did not talk about this concept called agency.”

Agency, explained Huang, has to do with the actions—acts of omission and commission—of veterans while deployed in war. “It’s not just that they were exposed to combat but they also may have had to pull the trigger; they had to be the cause of destruction; they had to kill—sometimes they may have accidentally killed civilians,” said Huang.

Resultantly, Huang took an interest in identifying and explaining other contributors to the development of PTSD in veterans. Much of her work seeks to address questions about the role of soldiers’ actions—whether they have killed, whether they have caused death and so on, and whether any of those actions could increase rates of PTSD. Essentially, Huang’s research looks at the role of “guilt.”

“The result of my research was very interesting in that, of the factors such as combat exposure and guilt, combat exposure didn’t factor the most with PTSD,” explained Huang.  “It was guilt that factored the most and if you look at media, they talk about combat exposure but they rarely talk about guilt.”

For these reasons, Huang’s work may be considered particularly innovative and necessary in the field of social work. Her findings hint at new ways of viewing and possibly treating PTSD while simultaneously motivating self-evaluation on the part of members of society at large.

“As a society, we are not struggling with war. We are not struggling with the meaning of sending people to be in a war. We are not struggling with guilt or hurting. This is societal denial,” Huang explained. “The burden is placed upon the individual soldiers who have to struggle on their own. We send them to do the dirty work and they struggle with it. In actuality, it’s a collective decision to go to war and we should all struggle with that.”

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