Social Work Graduate Fueled by Family Experience With PTSD
By Brian Hiro
When Kianni Albrecht first walked through the doors of the Aspire Center in San Diego last fall, she felt like she was stepping back in time.
A Master of Social Work student at Cal State San Marcos, Albrecht was beginning a year-long internship with the local health care system of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, marking the early stages of her career aspiration to serve veterans by providing mental health social services.
A decade earlier, however, Albrecht had entered the same center under vastly different circumstances. Then a senior at Vista High School, she and her mother went to Aspire several times as part of a family education group in support of her stepfather, a master sergeant in the Marines who was undergoing treatment for extreme combat PTSD and substance abuse.
At the time, Albrecht was planning to study nursing at UC Santa Cruz, but her stepfather’s struggles with mental health – which bottomed out in a suicide attempt – inspired her to switch to psychology, followed several years later by the social work master’s program at CSUSM.
“When I went to that facility, it brought back all those memories of 10 years prior,” Albrecht said. “And I realized, ‘Wow, I'm doing it. This is happening.’ That was a big moment of realization to me, and it ignited my purpose and my meaning for the goal even more.”
For the singularity of her vision and her all-around excellence as a student, Albrecht this month was named the winner of the Dean’s Outstanding Graduate Award for the College of Education, Health and Human Services. Besides her internship with VA San Diego Healthcare System – which succeeded a previous one with the MiraCosta College equivalent of CSUSM's Cougar Care Network – she volunteered as the vice president, then president, of the CSUSM Social Work Coalition, for which she more than doubled student membership, reduced membership fees and developed the first wellness retreat.
She also represented the MSW program and the university at the National Association of Social Workers-CA Lobby Days, speaking with state policymakers to advocate for legislation that aligns with the mission and values of the social work profession.
Now that she’s graduating, Albrecht intends to take the next natural step in the journey that started when she walked into the Aspire Center all those years ago. Armed with her master’s degree, she and her stepfather, Nicholas San Nicolas, plan to team up to make presentations on military trauma and veterans’ mental health at the local, state and even national level – Albrecht from the perspective of the social work clinician and San Nicolas from the perspective of the veteran who nearly succumbed to mental health woes.
San Nicolas has been a motivational speaker for veteran and youth groups since he retired from the Marines in 2018 after serving for 22 years.
“I’ve been to four veterans’ retreats, I’ve been to many counselors, but I’ve never seen a father and daughter stand in front of veterans or active-duty Marines who are freshly back from combat,” San Nicolas said. “The message of our story and our experiences would be so effective, and that’s what needs to be implemented in many of these VA facilities.”
Albrecht and San Nicolas have been mulling their idea for a while, but it gained momentum last fall when she asked for and received permission to give a talk with her stepfather in the MSW class taught by Shellye Sledge. Albrecht designed a PowerPoint based on course material, with a particular focus on areas that some students were having trouble grasping but that she had intimate knowledge of because of her association with PTSD – then she interviewed San Nicolas about his lived experience with trauma and mental health treatment.
“I think doing it and receiving the feedback from my classmates and my professor was really encouraging and empowering,” Albrecht said. “It reinforced the value of what we want to do and validated the confidence in our competency and ability to do this. That really motivated us to take it farther.”
Albrecht’s hope is not only to educate people in the profession about the telltale signs of PTSD, but also to emphasize the importance of incorporating family members in treatment.
“From what I’ve experienced at the VA, there are very limited opportunities for family to be involved and to learn more about what their family member is going through,” she said. “My dad still talks about that: ‘Without your support, I don’t know if I would have been able to make it this far.’ ”
San Nicolas is the son of a Marine who served 28 years, did two tours of duty in Vietnam and was awarded a Purple Heart. He also was diagnosed with severe combat PTSD. San Nicolas enlisted in the Marines at age 19 in 1997 and, several years later, was part of the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“I was one of the first Marines to step foot over that boundary,” he said.
When he returned from the war to his wife, Nicole, and his stepdaughter (the couple also has two younger sons, Dominic, 19, and Nixon, 9), San Nicolas was a changed man. Albrecht didn’t yet have the language to describe his behavior, so she would lightheartedly refer to him as “crazy.”
“Me and my mom were able to support one another through that time,” Albrecht said. “But he had frequent angry outbursts, and we had to avoid a lot of places and environments. It was very limiting; it really controlled our entire lives. While it was very difficult to understand, I think we projected it as being part of the military experience. We kind of normalized it. But it got to the point where I became very burned out.”
In addition to his PTSD, San Nicolas was dealing with drug and alcohol addiction, making him a “triple threat” in the eyes of the Marines. When he attempted suicide in 2012, he was forced into an inpatient program – a move that both him and military leadership had been avoiding because of the traditional stigma against service members admitting a need for help.
As part of San Nicolas’ treatment, Albrecht and her mother were invited to join a psychoeducational group, which informs family members about mental health or substance abuse disorders and their consequences. Albrecht learned, for example, the psychological reasons behind what she used to consider bizarre behavior by her stepfather in crowded public places, when San Nicolas would get in a confrontation or the family would have to leave, and Albrecht would be left wondering why they couldn’t just enjoy a fun day out like other families.
“I was able to reframe and understand that he is trained to constantly be looking for safety,” she said. “He is trained to constantly protect and defend. He has experienced a lot of things that no human should have to experience. Learning where his symptoms stemmed from helped me to rationalize and understand what we were experiencing. Also, I was able to shift my frame from feeling resentful and victimized to having empathy and compassion and curiosity for what he was experiencing.”
Those were the early seeds of what became Albrecht’s academic and career path. She has applied to be a full-time social worker at VA San Diego Healthcare System, but for now, she and her stepfather are eager to take their work on the road.
“We're successful because of what happened in our home. It starts in our home,” San Nicolas said. “We've been through trials and tribulations. We identified it as a team, as a family. We went through the treatments as a family, Kianni went through college, and I’m continuing to give back to youth and to society.
“It's been a long road, but this is not the end. It’s just the beginning.”
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
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