Behrend nursing student looking to break the cycle of substance abuse

Penn State Behrend student and Schreyer Scholar Katie Boeckenhauer

Penn State Behrend student Katie Boeckenhauer in the nursing simulation lab.

Credit: Jenelle Ingalls

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Katie Boeckenhauer worked as a nurse extern on the behavioral health floor at Saint Vincent Hospital in Erie, Pennsylvania, last summer. The Penn State Behrend student and Schreyer Honors Scholar got to know some of the patients and came to understand how the effects of childhood trauma manifested in those patients as adults.

“That kind of got me thinking, ‘What can we do for these people to prevent the development of mental health issues and substance abuse?’” she said.

Boeckenhauer is endeavoring to answer that question with research for her honors thesis. The senior nursing major has done a systematic review of literature on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and their negative effects.

“All of the research I’m looking at points to a direct positive relationship between increased adversity and later substance use,” Boeckenhauer said. “Another concept that’s emerging in the literature is that substance use is an intergenerational problem. Children who experience ACEs are more likely to use substances as adults, which subsequently puts their children at risk for adversity. It creates a cycle that is passed from parent to child, so it’s really important to find a way to break that cycle.”

Boeckenhauer’s research has shown that identifying and encouraging modifiable variables, including mindfulness, resilience, and positive adult relationships, can have a significant impact on people who have experienced ACEs.

“There isn’t much we can do with the genetic component,” said Carolynn Masters, an associate teaching professor of nursing at Penn State Behrend who is Boeckenhauer’s thesis adviser. “But if we can help with the other risk factors, identifying early and knowing those individuals are more at risk, what can we do to help them develop more effective coping mechanisms and understand that there’s alternatives.

“There are a lot of skills [that Katie is] learning through this process of doing her thesis that will apply and suit her well in life as a professional nurse," said Masters.

Boeckenhauer has strived to make an impact beyond her research. Since her junior year she has been involved with The Mentor Project, which is led by the Susan Hirt Hagen Center for Community Outreach, Research and Evaluation (CORE), and pairs Behrend students with local elementary school students to help develop resiliency and pro-social behavior.

She plans to work in the medical intensive care unit at Saint Vincent after graduating this spring and would eventually like to become a mental-health nurse practitioner. Boeckenhauer wants to continue to promote mental health in Erie and said she hopes her research can be applied to any type of nursing.

“Nurses in any specialty area will run into substance use and mental health issues,” Boeckenhauer said. “Understanding that people who use substances are much more likely to have had traumatic experiences as a child will better prepare nurses to care for these patients.

"There are still a lot of misconceptions regarding substance use. Asking 'What happened to this person?' instead of 'What's wrong with this person?' may be a way nurses can intervene and connect them with resources to help them resolve their trauma and recover from substance use," said Boeckenhauer.

About the Schreyer Honors College

The Schreyer Honors College promotes academic excellence with integrity, the building of a global perspective, and creation of opportunities for leadership and civic engagement. Schreyer Honors Scholars total approximately 2,000 students at University Park and 20 Commonwealth Campuses and represent 38 states and 28 countries. More than 14,000 scholars have graduated with honors from Penn State since 1980.