Elizabeth Burgin, assistant professor at William & Mary, is known for her exceptional work in play therapy and for her leadership of the new Military and Veterans Counseling program, serving as program coordinator.
Burgin has two passions, to serve both children and military families, and her work in these two areas has recently been recognized.
Burgin was awarded the Association for Play Therapy Research Award after her groundbreaking finding that play therapy treats trauma from the largest play therapy study in existence today.
In describing the positive impact play therapy can have, Burgin shares, “Play is the natural language of children. And play therapy is a developmentally and culturally responsive way to process the world as they experience it. Play therapy can be fun, but it is also a way to bridge psychological, neurological, and physical understandings to support development in children.”
During her doctoral program at the University of North Texas, where she specialized in play therapy, Burgin served as the director of Play for the Future, a program that deployed 25 counselors into seven Title I preschool and elementary schools. She led a three-year study where counselors used play therapy with students, parents, and in classroom interventions.
Through this study, she found that following an eight-week intervention, students increased in self-regulation, empathy and self-responsibility. She also found that students’ symptoms of anxiety and depression improved, as well as their academic achievement.
“When we help children improve how they relate to others, they can have a higher frustration tolerance to sit through a test or difficult task, or they can ask for help and advocate for themselves,” Burgin said. “We can see a ripple effect, that if we work on students’ socio-emotional needs, then we can see changes across the system.”
This served as a revolutionary study because it was the first of its kind to show that students who experienced on-going trauma and who had adverse childhood experiences could improve after receiving play therapy intervention. Also, the structure of the program reduced common barriers to treatment, such as transportation and private therapy costs, because it was conducted in schools.
“Play therapy has over 150 studies to support its efficacy, and we have shown that play therapy can successfully treat trauma,” Burgin said. “Now we are working to make it more accessible for those who seek it and those who want to be trained in it.”
Burgin has plans to expand access to training in play therapy for children in the local community.
Her second passion, to serve military families, stems from her personal connection to the military population. As a military-connected person herself, Burgin has consistently found herself engaging with those connected to the military in mental health services.
During her doctoral program, Burgin and her research partner conducted a content analysis to determine how military populations were being explored, served, and researched within the mental health field as well as which aspects were being overlooked. Out of this research, Burgin and her colleague became part of a task force that developed best practices for counselors working with military populations.
Her paper was published in 2018 and became the first professional practices position paper on how counselors could be culturally sensitive and provide culturally responsive support care to military populations. This list of best practices was endorsed by the American Counseling Association in 2021 and was renamed the Exemplary Practices for Counseling Military Populations.
During this time, Burgin served on the Board of the Military and Government Counseling Association, a division of the American Counseling Association, as Secretary. In this role, Burgin communicated with association members about developments in veterans’ affairs and highlighted regions where issues for military populations were being addressed appropriately. Now, Burgin is moving into her new role as President-Elect.
Burgin has not only published work to support the counseling of military populations and worked at the national level in the professional organization, but has also worked tirelessly to develop the Military & Veterans Counseling program at William & Mary.
There was both a federal and state call to increase licensed professional counselors in the Defense Health Agency (DHA) and Veterans Health Administration (VHA) settings, and now, thanks to Burgin’s efforts, W&M’s program can meet that need. It was for this work that she was awarded the Military and Government Counseling Association Outstanding Advocacy Award.
When reflecting on this award, Burgin said, “This award is special because our program is unique in its delivery as a specialization. The award came from aligning state and federal legislation and curriculum standards in our Military and Veterans Counseling program, so students can intern in veterans’ affairs and active-duty settings. This is meaningful to me, as a military connected person, because as I deliver my lectures, someone I know comes to mind, and I wish that person had one of our students to sit across from. Our students will be very impactful serving the military who need mental health services.”
It was also recently announced that Burgin is the newest recipient of the Carl D. Perkins Government Relations Award by the American Counseling Association. This award recognizes those that significantly contribute to the counseling profession and those it serves through the influence of policy. Burgin is receiving this award for her work advancing policy for military connected populations, improving legislation for people in the military, veterans and their families.
Now, Burgin is working on research melding her two passions of serving both children and military families by investigating the characteristics of surviving family members of bereaved service members. This research will help mental health providers in understanding how to better support the relationships of surviving family members.
“Children are more dynamic, and I am focused on understanding children more holistically and understanding the caregiver relationship,” Burgin said. “Military families are not well represented in research and intervention, which is mostly focused on the service member experience.”
Therefore, Burgin is on a mission to understand the caregiver relationship to support the surviving caregiver and children as they grieve together. Thanks to Burgin, W&M students are now being trained to serve the populations she cares for so deeply and continues to support through her nationally recognized impactful work, research and contributions in the counseling field.