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ASU alum helps guide those experiencing traumatic loss

Crisis intervention specialist also serves as field instructor for student internships


Headshot selfie of Kanika Henry wearing a black baseball cap and a blue shirt.

Kanika Henry, an alum of the ASU School of Social Work, is now a senior crisis intervention specialist at the Chandler Fire Department. Photo courtesy Kanika Henry

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June 22, 2023

Social work is not often done by appointment. A great deal of the help social workers offer occurs in the moment, as they compassionately support people on what could be their worst day ever.

Crisis intervention specialists, in particular, calmly comfort, reassure and guide individuals and families during the most devastating life experiences: Fire. Violence. Substance abuse. Suicide. Theft. Physical and mental illness. Homelessness.

Arizona State University alum Kanika Henry knows them all. A senior crisis intervention specialist who has worked at the Chandler Fire Department for 16 years, Henry ('05 BSW, '07 MSW) said a crisis can happen lightning fast, anytime and anywhere.

Intervention specialists may respond to the same 911 calls as police and fire crews, Henry said, or they might enter the situation later, by officers’ or firefighters’ request. In addition to providing emotional support in the moment, the specialist assesses which other resources will be needed to care for victims in the immediate and long term, she said.

“It could be anywhere someone is experiencing a crisis, as high level as a death, say by suicide or drowning, or a psychiatric crisis with someone who is at risk of suicide and may need acute care,” she said. “It’s a significant range of calls we respond to, from domestic violence, grief over death, psychiatric crisis, homelessness, house fires and more.”

Henry said news reports often don’t tell the whole story of such crises.

After a house fire, for instance, it's reported that “everyone got out all right,” she said. But the emotional trauma of learning everything they own has been destroyed, especially personal items that cannot be replaced, in some cases with little to no insurance coverage, is far from over. If a fire or explosion destroys a home and a bank takes over the property, some residents will never be able to return there, having to restart their lives elsewhere, she said.

Of course, a loss of a loved one is especially heartbreaking, Henry said. She said she has a passion for helping those affected by traumatic loss and for training interns from ASU’s Master of Social Work program as a field instructor.

Cynthia Peters, now the School of Social Work’s field education manager, remembers Henry from her student internship while Peters was working at Phoenix Parks and Recreation.

“I had the pleasure to serve as her field instructor and remember that she was always prepared, full of energy and asked a lot of questions when we would discuss her learning opportunities each week,” Peters said. “She was ready to go out and save the world. I supervised quite a few interns during my tenure with the city of Phoenix, and Kanika is an intern I never forgot due to her enthusiasm and energy. When I moved to ASU, I was so happy to see that she serves as a field instructor. (Her) students have nothing but positive accolades on how much they enjoy their internship opportunities with Chandler Fire Department.”

Read on to learn more about Henry, her work in crisis intervention and her time at ASU.

Editor's note: Responses may have been edited for length or clarity.

Question: Where are you from?

Answer: I’m an Arizona native, born and raised in Phoenix and currently still residing.

I am a National Association of Social Workers member and hold an Academy of Certified Social Worker certification through the organization, as well as a Certified Bereavement Care provider certification through Dr. Joanne Cacciatore’s international bereavement certification program. Finally, I hold a Certified Trauma Professional certification through the International Association of Trauma Professionals.

Q: How did your time at Watts College prepare you for life after college?

A: My time at the School of Social Work was invaluable, and I have developed relationships that I still have to this very day. I must say, there’s pretty much nothing that can fully prepare you for what life can bring. Once you enter the field, the learning truly begins.

Q: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

A: I wish I could tell you that I had one. I changed my major about six times until I finally learned about social work, and what it really is. At the risk of sounding cliché, I just knew I wanted to help people in some capacity.

Q: Which professor(s) taught you the most important lesson while at ASU? Are you still in touch with him/her/them?

A: Dr. Joanne Cacciatore has been the most influential professor in my entire career. She is an amazing pioneer in the field of traumatic grief, and has been extremely influential in my career.

Q: Do you recall a particular situation in your job that really meant something to you?

A: (In this position), you feel good about what you do, but you can’t fix everything.

I remember a middle-aged gentleman whose home caught fire. It was a pretty bad one. He pretty much lost just about everything. I’ll never forget this experience. When I first saw him, he had a real rough-around-the-edges look. He appeared to be very intimidating, and had tattoo markings that would suggest hate groups. When I walked up to him, he just collapsed into me. He was torn to pieces that he’d lost everything. It didn’t matter. He was a very kind man, appreciative and respectful.

That’s the core thing about all of us. We are far more alike than we are different. We all experience life and the trials of it. Each and every one of us experiences love, pain, sorrow, joy, happiness, no matter who we are or what we look like. When something happens in our lives that brings us to our knees, all bets are off. No matter our race, gender, religious beliefs or social status, life hits us all. That was an interesting lesson for me. ... We can all admit judgments upon first admission of something and can turn out to be very wrong.

Q: What would you say to someone considering being a crisis interventionist?

A: There’s not a lot you can do to be prepared to see some of the things you will see. We see some terrible things. Before you enter into doing this, the biggest takeaway is to have boundaries. Provide that compassionate care, but you have to take care of yourself. ... This is not emphasized enough in this field. Make sure you understand that as tragic as these situations are, and some will stick with you for the rest of your life, you have to remind yourself and say, “This is not my life, it is someone else’s.” This is critical to preventing burnout.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Me giving advice is kind of comical, but if I had to give some, I’d say that you don’t know life until you see life. It is our job to take a humble seat and be an empathetic guide, not advisor, to show people their own innate human resiliency and ability to effect change in their own lives.

Q: What’s one thing you love about training interns?

A: Their growth. It’s amazing to see their growth from semester to semester. It’s always rewarding hearing from them after they graduate, telling me they got a job and to thank me. Some of my former students have gone on to become my colleagues.

Q: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

A: I enjoy spending time with my amazing, loving and caring family and friends. I love to travel, when I can; hike; eat great food; and splurge on guilty-pleasure reality TV.

Q: What is your life motto in one sentence?

A: That’s a tough one. Here are three sentences: I do what I do because people are my passion. I’ve been doing this work for a long time, and through the midst of darkness or in times of crisis I’ve found that we are far more alike than we are different. We all experience life, and we all experience the pain, sorrow, happiness and joy that comes with it.

The School of Social Work is part of the ASU Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

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