An assistant professor in the UNLV School of Social Work, Nicholas Barr joins UNLV with more than a decade of clinical work helping homeless youth, military members, and veterans. His goal: implement mindfulness practices to help our communities’ most vulnerable populations become and stay resilient.
Barr co-created a mindfulness yoga program to help homeless youth cope with trauma. It’s been implemented in Los Angeles for homeless youth activists, nonprofit groups, and community members. He hopes to bring the program to Nevada, a state with the highest incidence rate of youth homelessness in the nation.
On why mindfulness is trending
There are a lot of reasons. What we do best in the U.S. is to commodify and sell items to make money. “Mindfulness” has now become a marketing term. That’s super great. It’s good for people to have exposure to these ideas, but at the same time, a lot of people are peddling quick-fix solutions. There are other people who would never encounter positive incentives if it wasn’t so widely talked about. We live in a scary world; there are a lot of problems. There’s a trend in examining and managing inner experience in order to combat the consequences of a negative world. We can’t allow mindfulness to be under the purview of wealthy and privileged people. We need to develop programs to effectively teach people who are in stressful situations.
Mindfulness isn’t a panacea or a magic fix. When we talk about mindfulness in a western clinical context, it’s about observing thoughts, being present in the moment, without judgement — in a nutshell.
Your research and clinic work focus on mindfulness in intervention, violence reduction, and treatment. What are you teaching master’s students in social work?
At the foundational level, there is a suite of clinical skills you need to have, and then you can figure out your strength and specialty from there. More and more mindfulness techniques are emerging as an approach to treatment and potentially preventing trauma and violence. Clinicians have a mindfulness and practice discipline where they first manage their own emotions to be effective in treating patients. Mindfulness and yoga are techniques to help people adapt, learn how to regulate emotions, and persevere.
When I initially saw the job calling, it was focused on researchers interested in trauma. A lot of veterans live in Nevada, UNLV is top-ranked as a military-friendly campus, Las Vegas’ high percentage of unaccompanied homeless youth — all lined up with my research interests.
As a community, how can we help our military service members?
Military veterans and especially combat veterans are at higher risk for traumatic experiences. Most military members do not experience PTSD; 70 percent are doing well. In working with veterans, the internal barriers are a real obstacle to getting treatment so there continues to be a lot of stigma about getting help. Some of that is an internalistic part of the values inculcated in combat like self-reliance and fighting through pain. Military members don’t want to go to the doctor for physical problems either. So it’s tricky. We have to engage with service members and stakeholders to get creative in intervention programs. Mindfulness treatments are effective for most people with PTSD.
As an undergraduate student, you studied Tibetan Buddhism in Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama lives.
It was a life-changing experience. I lived in India for eight months and two years in Laos. India was the first non-Western country I spent a long time in. It’s a fascinating place. What struck me the most was the ‘lived religiosity’ you see. There is a Starbucks on one corner and a temple on another corner and there is just as much foot traffic going in and out.
What did living abroad in India and Laos teach you?
A respect for immigrants — for people who leave their country of origin, learn a new language, establish themselves under a set of rules and new norms. I have so much empathy and respect for people to make that choice.
How do you decompress?
Exercise, jiu-jitsu, reading comic books, and graphic novels.
What film or TV show about social work makes you cringe about the way your field is portrayed?
I haven’t seen any social work portrayal that nails it or anything that shows a good depiction. The field is pretty misunderstood. There’s a new movie about a clinical social worker who is a serial killer.
So there are misconceptions about social work…
I think, while the heart of a strong social work identity is macro-policy focused, I really identify as a clinician and a larger part of my identity is a social scientist. I think social work has a lot to contribute to rigorous research practice because we come from a practice knowing that individuals are placed in complex and overlapping social and structural networks. Social work education is rooted in and determined by those perspectives. We are uniquely positioned to tackle 21st-century problems.
A student comes up to you and asks your advice, you’d say...
Take your own journey — and learn about financial literacy. Don’t think you’re not good at something. I used to think “I’m not good at math.” Now, I like statistics. I never would have approached it 10 years ago. Don’t write yourself off. Give it a try.