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Alumnus Inspires Well-being In Swedish Teens

Lainey S. Cronk, June 10, 2008
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She works with middle school students on the outskirts of Stockholm, Sweden. She travels the United States, Europe and Asia presenting to professionals in her field. She runs her own business on the prevention of depression among teenage girls. Eva-Mari Thomas, ’88, a social worker, keeps a full callendar.

Thomas came to the United States from Sweden when she was 19. She finished her bachelor’s degree at PUC and her master’s at Walla Walla, choosing to study social work because, as she says, “I am genuinely interested in people. I like to learn what I can about why people do what they do and how much our environment affects how we act and react to the world around us.”

After working in social work in California and Colorado, Thomas and her husband, Dane, att. ’86-‘87, and children Erik and Johanna moved back to Sweden, where she now she fills several roles. She works part-time as a social worker for a middle school, where she meets with individual students and groups and sometimes parents, consults with teachers on ways to handle different situations, and helps school personnel with difficult student situations and in creating action plans to support students academically and socially.

Several years ago, through Thomas and the school nurse, the middle school took part in a research project run by the Department of Public Health in Stockholm. The Depression In Swedish Adolescents (DISA) project evaluated whether schools could prevent stress and depressive symptoms among teenage girls by using a structured program based on cognitive behavioral therapy. “This program was something that fit my personality and my own opinion in how preventative work should be done,” Thomas explains.

The positive results led the school to make the DISA program a part of their overall program, with every eighth-grade girl taking the class. “The purpose,” Thomas says, “is to help to recognize, understand and deal with negative thought patterns as well as give them tools that can help them to deal with stress factors and prevent or reduce the severity of depressive tendencies at an early stage.”

Ten step-by-step lessons show the girls how to recognize and understand their thoughts, actions, and feelings. “In my work with 14-15 year-olds, about 75 percent who schedule appointments with me are girls,” Thomas says. “Generally they ask me for help concerning feelings of sadness, conflicts with peers and family, self-inflicted injuries, sex and relationships, peer pressure, etc. I have often felt sadness over not being able to reach these kids before life has gotten so difficult.”

When the DISA results were published, Thomas was contacted by a multitude of different agencies and individuals requesting lectures or education on the method. So now, in addition to her work at the middle school and running her own business, Thomas presents DISA to other professionals around the world. She also travels as a member of the Swedish Association of School Social Workers, an organization that works to strengthen the role of school social workers.

Balancing these demands is, she admits, “the most challenging part” of her work. But she loves the different elements and rewards of what she does. “It is incredibly rewarding working with the teens at the school and seing the ‘aha look’ in their eyes when they start to understand how much power they really have over their own sense of emotional well-being and what they can to do make their own lives better. It is equally rewarding teaching other professionals how to effectively work with the DISA method with girls at their schools or organizations and having them report back to me how great it is when their girls get it.”