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Through struggles with PTSD, student-veteran finds success in social work

Alex Bullock

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Everyone has a favorite Christmas present. 

For some it’s a new gadget. For Amber McAnulla, it was coming home from Iraq one month early to be with her son, Brice. She had been gone for 11 months.

McAnulla joined the U.S. armed forces at 17, just before her senior year of high school. After serving for nine-and-a-half years, she was ready to come home for good. 

“Transitioning from military to a civilian was a harder process than I thought,” McAnulla said.

In fall 2009, she saw an advertisement for Upward Bound at Wichita State and enrolled right away.

McAnulla will graduate this semester with a master’s degree in social work, and will begin looking for a job. 

“I want to start out working with mental illness,” McAnulla said.

Upward Bound is designed to motivate and help veterans return to school and have a career. The program provides tutoring, counseling and mentoring for its students. 

“They have continually checked in on me and been in contact with me throughout college,” McAnulla said.

She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder when she was a freshman at WSU. PTSD is a mental health condition that is triggered by a traumatic event, either experiencing it or witnessing it.

“I figured something was wrong, but didn’t know what it was,” McAnulla said. 

McAnulla struggled to come to terms with the diagnosis, due to the stigmas that swirl around the words “mental illness.”

“I didn’t get blown up or shot at. I came home with all my limbs. I thought I wasn’t injured, but I was,” McAnulla said. 

After arriving at WSU, McAnulla progressed with the help of her education in social work and instructors, including Shaunna Millar, clinical educator and director for the bachelor of social work program.

Millar has been a social worker for more than 18 years. 

“Amber is an example of a student who has gone through so much, but has pushed herself to see her needs and where she needed to grow,” she said.

Millar has been one of McAnulla’s instructors since she was an undergraduate student.

“One of the things I love about Amber is that she is so genuine and authentic about her life experiences, and it has made it possible for her to grow so much, in some ways other students aren’t,” Millar said. 

Millar said she has confidence in McAnulla. She said her ability to empathize with people who have served and experienced trauma will make her “a fierce advocate and social worker.”

“I love social work and all the little rewards in it,” McAnulla said. 

After getting some experience in the mental health side of social work, she wants to focus her career on veterans. 

McAnulla attributes her academic success to working through her own battle with PTSD. 

“You really have to know yourself to be a social worker, you have to know your triggers and be aware so you are prepared for anything,” McAnulla said.

Being a veteran and a student challenged McAnulla. 

 “WSU was the best thing for me,” she said. “The support I have gotten through the School of Social Work is truly incredible and something I never expected.”

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