"Poster Session
of the Year"

Winner Sarah Magnes Pioneers Peer Support Research to Help Veterans

Written by Judy Tierney

For Sarah Magnes, PhD, School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, the path to her doctoral research on peer support began more than 20 years ago in a government hospital in South Africa, around the time that Nelson Mandela was released from Robin Island. You could say she’s been pioneering and transforming mental health services ever since.

Sarah Magnes (PhD, School of Social and Behavioral Sciences)

Sarah Magnes Sarah Magnes

After earning her bachelor’s degree in social work at Hebrew University in Israel, Magnes – who won the award for NCU’s 2016 Poster Session of the Year on her topic “Gratitude and Well-Being in Veterans Participating in a Peer-Provided Service in a Mental Health Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program” – moved to South Africa to pursue a master’s degree and begin working.

“We integrated mental health services before the rest of the country was integrating,” she recalls of her tenure as Chief of Social Work at Tara Hospital before the country’s first democratic election. Under-resourced and challenged by how to get services to patients, Magnes and her team used students as honorary staff members, travelled to rural areas to train nurses and partnered with associations to become more patient-centered. “I was immersed in transformation and change, and ‘thinking outside the box’ was very much encouraged.”

When she returned to the U.S. in the early 2000s, Magnes felt like she had hit a wall. “I left the states when I was 13,” she says, “and when I came back it was a huge adjustment.” While she describes the culture in South Africa as one of ‘go after it, be a change agent and make a difference,’ in the U.S. she initially experienced a ‘we don’t do it that way’ attitude.

“No one thought anything needed to be any different,” she explains. As Magnes battled this mentality, her career began to accelerate. In 2005, working with the Florida Department of Children and Families on peer support, she started considering the possibility of pursuing a PhD and focusing on this new concept. “I loved the idea of exploring an area that, at the time, had almost no research on it,” she says.

“I was immersed in transformation and change, and ‘thinking outside the box’ was very much encouraged.”

Magnes felt that pursuing an American education would provide another element of understanding and expand her horizons in social work, but her local universities did not offer a part-time PhD program for working, more mature students. “In South Africa, distance learning was very well thought of, respected, and held in high regard,” she explains. “However, in the U.S. it was just becoming more widely accepted.”

Visiting the Department of Education website to look for online programs that were accredited and fully credentialed, Magnes found NCU. “The people I worked with at NCU were so supportive, helpful and welcoming,” she says. “I had degrees from two different countries, and NCU made it easy get transcripts of coursework and get my degrees and credentials reviewed as equivalent.”

NCU also provided Magnes with the flexibility to take breaks to manage life events, including a flood in which she and her husband lost everything and time off to care for her elderly parents in Israel. “From the perspective of a student with responsibilities of work, life and family,” she says, “this was absolutely pivotal in my success.”

In 2011, Magnes had an opportunity to move to Virginia to work at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). “This was really my passion,” she says. “My roots in public service and transformation in South Africa were strong, and I felt the VA was very forward-looking and could offer that.”

Magnes credits her plan to research peer support for her PhD and her time spent in the Israeli army as critical factors in being hired at the VA. “I understood military culture, and there is a great affinity between the US and Israeli armies,” she explains. “My credibility and ability to contribute specifically to the VA were key.”

“In my own career, the PhD has made a significant impact on my contributions, it has given me a voice of leadership and allowed me to support the veterans. It’s just phenomenal.”

Sarah Magnes

Magnes’ research focused on whether gratitude is a factor in the recovery outcomes of veterans participating in a peer support intervention. She studied two groups of veterans. The first group participated in a peer-led intervention group called “Veteran X” that used role playing, joint problem-solving and interaction to address common issues that veterans face including substance abuse, job loss and family disintegration. The second group, received similar treatment, but did not participate in Veteran X.

Magnes found that the emotion of gratitude in those veterans who participated in Veteran X was a significant factor in the recovery well-being outcomes of those veterans, who also demonstrated greater improvements in symptoms, functioning, protective factors, and risk factors. “This is important because there are lots of activities that can enhance gratitude, which appears to explain some of the effectiveness of peer support interventions,” explains Magnes.

During the course of her research, the Veteran X team received an innovation grant to help train peer specialists on the model, and to demonstrate that the intervention group was effective. When the results of the Veteran X study were released, Magnes drafted a briefing that was presented to the President’s cabinet. The team presented the results of the study at a national conference with VA Secretary Bob McDonald. In addition, theirs was one of only six programs selected to help implement the Clay Hunt Act, a congressional act that is part of the country’s veteran suicide prevention plan.

Now that she has earned her PhD, Magnes has established a reputation as a specialist and an expert on peer support services and peer support research. She has expanded her own research and added more veterans, and has presented her work at various forums, national conferences and leadership meetings. She is also part of the three member Clay Hunt Act implementation team that is setting up Veteran X groups for transitioning service members, linking it to the community and to other states.

“In my own career, the PhD has made a significant impact on my contributions,” she says. “It has given me a voice of leadership and allowed me to support the veterans. It’s just phenomenal.”

Outside of work, Magnes and her husband recently bought an old Victorian home and are fixing it up. “It’s my commitment to the VA and to what my work is doing,” she says. “I’m here to stay. It’s been a long road to feeling like I’m exactly where I need to be.”