What do we leave behind? A therapist talks death, legacy and burnout

Shanéa Thomas on her quest for lasting impact, and what she’s learned from Game of Thrones

By Ross Brenneman

Shanéa Thomas (Photo/Robin Flemming)

Shanéa Thomas has wanted to be Dr. Thomas since 7th grade. On May 13, 2021, she not only gets to don her doctoral hood, but he will also be a student speaker at USC Rossier’s commencement celebration. Thomas graduates as Doctor of Education in Organizational Change and Leadership, having studied how organizations support employees who may be especially vulnerable to burning out.

Hailing from Hampton, Va., Thomas now lives in Temple Hills, Md., with his two-year-old child, Zeyah. Thomas has been teaching at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work for 10 years, while also working as a youth and family therapist at numerous D.C.-based organizations. And she’s also on a mission to help organizations keep good therapists from burning out.

Thomas spoke to USC Rossier about trauma, social work and how Game of Thrones shaped her thinking about death.

USC Rossier: How did you know you wanted to get your doctorate?

Shanéa Thomas: School is my thing. I definitely own that I am a nerd, that I have more books than I can read. Hampton University is not too far down the street from where I grew up. I wanted to be a Black doctor. I wanted to make sure that I educated people in some way, shape or form and around healthcare. I wanted people to be well, and I want people to learn, because I like teaching.

What drew you to healthcare?

I worked as a candy striper in a hospital in high school, I volunteered for four years. I worked in various places with older adults, but then I also worked with kids, with babies. It got me to see how I like to help, and how people when they’re sick and not doing well, how they want to be helped. And I think that rolled over into me becoming a therapist. I appreciate being able to sit and help process and talk people through the things they’re going through.

What drew you to education for your doctoral degree?

I used to work at a high school for people who are labeled emotionally disturbed or learning disabled—that’s the label that they gave them—but really these students were experiencing trauma and probably not getting their basic needs met. They all had Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). I think I was the only Black social worker there at the time. I remember one of my colleagues was happy about the students having problems; they couldn’t wait to fill up their private practice. And that didn’t feel good because these folks look like me. So you are waiting for their demise, in order for you to make money off of them? That doesn’t feel good.

It’s hard to sit with a client, day after day after day talking about things that are also affecting me.”

And there are different identities by which people are marginalized, particularly their sexual orientation and their gender. A part of the reason why I got into education was to prevent the harassment that was happening to LGBTQ youth, to be able to give information to people around sex and gender. If you have a person walk in your door and they’re queer, how do you make sure that you’re respecting them so they get the best care, especially in healthcare? Every semester I get an email from a student saying, “Dr. Thomas, thank you so much for having that conversation about sex and gender, I had a person come in [for care] today and I knew what pronouns were, I knew how to respect them, or I knew some resources.” And that’s what makes my job worth it, if I can give people access to the best healthcare through education, I’m willing to do that.

What led you to the Organizational Change and Leadership program at USC Rossier? What did you want to take away from it?

I think part of it was it was a great fit. I knew other people within the School of Social Work who had went here for the same program, and they really enjoyed it. It’s really improved some of the aspects of how they do their own work. It was helpful that it was online.

I wanted to be a Trojan. I want to put that degree on my wall. I wanted to be trained by people who know what they’re doing. I was in a doctoral program before and that didn’t work, because I feel like there were parts of my vision that they couldn’t see.

USC was flexible. My dissertation chair (Teaching Professor Bryant Adibe) was very helpful, and being able to execute a vision that I had of what I wanted to study, I was thankful for that.

Your dissertation is “The Dedicated and the Committed: An Examination of Burnout Within Peer Support for Transgender, Queer and Non-Binary Volunteers.”

The part “the dedicated and the committed” comes from the (psychologist) Herbert Freudenberger, who came up with burnout as a concept. He talks about how especially people who are in helping professions, the more that people dedicate themselves to something or working with other people, the more that they can experience a certain level of burnout. But in the end if they’re not supported by their organization, then they will burn out at a higher rate, and we lose good people, right? I was a youth psychotherapist and worked with LGBTQ youth, as well as people who are affected by HIV and AIDS. We have a peer support program, and I wanted to find out, how does identity play into a part of the experience of burnout?

I know as a clinician who is Black, who is queer, who identifies as non-binary, all these other intersections I have, I know how hard therapy is for me. Especially during this past year, when there were all these racial uprisings and having this very violent previous administration. It’s hard to sit with a client, day after day after day talking about things that are also affecting me. I didn’t know how to hold hope.

This is heavy work, and I don’t think we prepare people for the heavy work. And so, I want to be able to prepare those queer and trans peer support workers in order to hold space for other people who look like them.

There are a lot of depictions of therapy in recent pop culture, and it feels like therapy has been discussed more openly in the past few years, in contrast to what has been, historically, a stigma.

Totally. Talk about mental illness is stigmatizing. We don’t think people can get well, we think something’s wrong with them, instead of thinking about the larger systematic issues that cause some of the issues that people are going through. Particularly if you’re part of a marginalized population—you’re going to get bad healthcare. On top of being stigmatized, you’ll face discrimination X, Y and Z, so I think there was definitely movements around destigmatizing therapy and having it accessible to everybody, with text messages, with online options, and that was happening before COVID. I think the hope is that social media is also normalizing mental health and mental illness as well.

The last year has been particularly traumatizing for a lot of people.

We are all living in a crisis, right now. The world’s on fire, people are not well and they’re having a hard time. Especially with the police violence—you were seeing live violence on TV almost every day at one point, a couple weeks ago. What does that do to your body? What does that do to your mind? What does that do to how you feel in your environment? It is essential that we talk about mental health. I’m not that therapist where I’m just like “you have to go to therapy,” I’m just like, “please make it a part of your toolbox,” and if that doesn’t work for you, go to a group, have a group of friends, find people online.

Prof. Brendesha Tynes has researched how videos of police-related killings or other videos of violence that involve certain identities have a traumatizing effect in communities that share those identities. And especially as those become increasingly prevalent, you know there’s going to be a corresponding amount of trauma that goes with it.

Absolutely. I think the next part of my research, especially around grief and loss, is really studying the ways that we are not only taking in this level of violence, but also how are we making sure that we’re aware that everybody on some level is experiencing this in a very intense way.

In addressing people’s mental health every day, you have to train yourself to understand that you’re not anyone’s savior, right? You can’t invest all of your emotional mental health in everyone else’s mental health.

That is one of the first things I teach students. I’ve always had this rule in therapy, with a client, where I say I can’t give more than my 50 percent. I’m going to show up to the table, but if you don’t show up with your things, if you are not prepared, then I want this more than you, and this is not what this relationship is about. I have to teach my students to create boundaries for themselves.

Even though these employees work for you, they’re working with other people, and they need to be supported.”

Students come in because they want to save the world, and then you have to teach them, you’re not going to be able to save the world. That’s just not feasible—but what about your town? What about this one family? Or what about this one policy in a state? What about sitting on Capitol Hill and fighting for this one bill? There are other things that you can do that don’t have to be so grand, because you can link up with other people, and you can do it as a collective. But doing it by yourself will kill you.

What can organizations do to help prevent burnout? Even with the understanding that each organization has their own problems, where can they start?

Build a relationship with employees, and appreciate them. I think the two main things that I was hearing was that people want somebody to talk to them, to check in with them and see how they’re doing. Whatever that meant, whether that was an email or something else. People appreciate things like pizza parties, and they also like having their own support networks.

I think organizations need to learn good customer service. Even though these employees work for you, they’re working with other people, and they need to be supported. Come up with a substantial plan to be genuine and honest and vulnerable. I think if we lose a sense of vulnerability, then we can also lose a sense of humanity.

Your résumé has an undercurrent of loss, trauma and grief.

It’s just like … I enjoy thinking about and processing death. I think it has always been that way, since I was little. I’m almost embarrassed to talk about this. I love going to graveyards and cemeteries and taking pictures. I think they’re beautiful places to go. I always like to say that the peace that you have in graveyards is peace that the living would love to have. We don’t experience this sense of quietness and stillness that’s there.

But, people are dying and you have to face it. I had one client when I was in grad school, he was 16. And he would always come to our groups, and I remember, somebody called me and they’re like, “Hey, are you looking at the news? Chris died.” He was standing on the corner and somebody came and shot him. I was devastated. Nobody taught me how to process that, as a young social worker, and so I think I’m extra mindful about how we make space for folks.

And also, there’s this idea that slavery happened so long ago, as though it’s OK to forget about it. Yet it has all of these institutional systematic effects that we can’t let go of, and that are still ongoing—stress and high blood pressure and diabetes and all those health issues—it’s still killing us. I think death has really weaved itself into the work that I’m doing.

How have these things changed your own conception of death?

I’m a late millennial, so I’m also thinking about retirement, I’m thinking about wills. I have a very lovely two-and-a-half-year-old baby, I have to think about what am I leaving behind, what’s my legacy? As I’m growing up with the work that I’m doing I’m also processing the fact that I’m not going to be here forever. May I ask, are you a Game of Thrones fan?

There’s a good show if you like death.

I am so in love with Tyrion Lannister. I love this scene where he’s talking to the dragon lady, Daenerys [Stormborn of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, etc.], and he’s having a conversation with her about how you’re not going to be here forever. You’re taking all these risks and doing all these things, which is fine, but if you don’t live, what are all these people that you have collected, what are they going to do?

That’s sparked an idea for me in doing diversity, equity and inclusion work, where I ask administrators or executives: if you’re not here, what happens? Does this infrastructure just crumble? Or is there a way that you’re going to leave somebody else to continue the legacy that you want? I don’t know if that all makes sense, but that really is kind of like how I think about grief and death and leaving things. It’s all a part of a legacy. I want to leave something behind.

You’ve mentioned legacy and graveyards. Have you thought about what your epitaph would be?

Yes, and this is gonna be so bad, I am dead serious about this: the first and foremost thing, I want “Dr. Thomas” on my headstone.

I don’t know if this is real but I saw a meme floating around on social media and it was this person’s headstone. An academic had this code on their headstone and when you took a picture of the code their list of publications would show up on your phone. I want to leave behind literature. I want to start instituting what I would call a legacy theoretical framework. And I want to also publish a book on being a Black mother and how that experience within academia looks and how does that affect the way that I mother. And how does that affect my gender too. I have a lot I want to leave behind, and so I would put on my gravestone something you can scan so the public knows.

That sculptor has their work cut out. In the short term, what’s next for you?

I’m looking at my gown, and I want to put it on and eat some cereal.

You have it, you should use it!

I told myself, I was going to go to Target in my cap and gown, and that is what I’m going to do. I’m excited.

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