Brown School Center Celebrates 25 Years of Mental Health Services Research Training

Faculty; Public Health; Research

When Leopoldo J. Cabassa and Byron Powell were new investigators, each was drawn to the Center for Mental Health Services Research (CMHSR) at the Brown School.

Founded by Enola Proctor, Shanti K. Khinduka Distinguished Professor (2014-18), it was the first Advanced Center for Interventions and Services Research within a school of social work to be awarded a training program grant by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). CMHSR had also become a proven leader in mental health services research and implementation science.

Both Cabassa and Powell participated in the training program and credit it with jump-starting their academic careers. The innovative institutional training offers financial support to pre-doctoral and post-doctoral students as they mature as scholars and undertake groundbreaking research in a broad variety of fields. It has been continually funded by NIMH and is now celebrating its 25th year at the Brown School.

Cabassa and Powell have returned to CMHSR at the Brown School — and are leading it as co-directors. Proctor, who recently took part-time emerita status, remains on the steering committee of the center’s training program and continues to be a mentor for fellows and faculty.

“This NIMH training was critical for me,” said Cabassa, an associate professor. “It gave me the skills and knowledge to successfully navigate the grant process.” It resulted in getting an NIMH dissertation grant award to examining how Hispanic adults with depression make decisions about care and set the stage for other NIMH grants Cabassa has received since graduating from the Brown School.

For Powell, now an assistant professor, a major benefit of the fellowship was the opportunity to gain exposure to the NIMH funding landscape and the high-intensity network of students and faculty stars in his field of implementation science.

“You’re thrown in the mix with post-docs and PhD students who are years ahead of you,” he recalled. “You immediately get to learn from them and are treated as a colleague.” The fellowship also provided funds that enabled him to travel to national meetings that expanded his horizons and strengthened him professionally.

“Washington University was the place for implementation science, it was leading the way,” he said.

It still is.

“We’re creating leaders in the field, and developing innovation in mental health care,” Cabassa said.

Since 1995, the T-32 program has prepared 63 pre- and 18 post-doctoral fellows for academic and research careers. The program has also resulted in the publication of original research by fellows. In the last 15 years, pre-doc fellows have published 165 papers. Currently, the program has six active pre-doctoral trainees and three post-doctoral fellows.

The training programs at CMHSR accepts doctoral students in social work who are already doing research in the field of mental health or other areas of study in the NIMH umbrella, such as implementation science and HIV treatment.

The program focuses on researching ways to improve access and delivery of mental health care and outcomes for vulnerable populations. Fellows receive additional training each year at the Brown School as part of their larger studies and research. The training, overlaid with other classes, includes:

  • A seminar on how to write grants
  • A class in psychiatric epidemiology
  • A practicum with mentors engaged in mental health services research
  • A seminar in mental health services research

“The strength of this program is its breadth,” Cabassa said. “We train fellows to five knowledge domains: mental health services research, research with vulnerable populations, intervention research, implementation science, and advanced research methods, such as systems science.”

The program’s connection between mental health and social work makes sense, Cabassa said. “Social work is where the rubber meets the road for services. We work in different service sectors, like schools, prisons, and hospitals, where mental illness is an issue. We’re everywhere, and mental illness is everywhere.”

The program has evolved as the Brown School has grown. This is evident in an emphasis on equity and disparities, as well as new areas of research, like early interventions for schizophrenia. It is also reflected in an expanding roster of faculty, particularly as the Brown School moved into the field of public health.

One recent post-doctoral fellow, Virginia McKay, participated in the training in 2015-16 and is now a research assistant professor. Her research interests include implementation science and the use of evidence in practice, particularly for infectious diseases. Like Powell, she came to the Brown School because of its reputation.

“For me, the value of the NIMH T32 was being able to come and get exposure to established implementation scientists,” McKay said. “Getting your PhD is about learning science; it’s different when you go about actually doing science. The NIMH fellowship gave me access to active projects on the ground.”

One of the projects she worked on as a trainee was a pilot study in collaboration with the School of Medicine to reduce use of antibiotics by finding out why surgeons overprescribe and how to persuade them to stop. (Overuse of antibiotics can make them lose effectiveness and increase body resistance.)

Proctor was her mentor in the program. “She helped me to figure out how to articulate my expertise, and guide my research to start me down a successful trajectory for my career,” McKay said.

During her T32 training, McKay completed a grant application as a learning experience. She unexpectedly received the grant, which is now funding her study of the use of ineffective programs by HIV prevention organizations.

“Being a post-doc is sort of like being your own startup, it’s really hard,” she said. “The fellowship allows you two years to do all of that stuff. It gives you the opportunity to engage with other researchers and move forward. With NIMH, you have the freedom to work with whomever you choose. That’s not true of many other post-doc programs.”

Powell said the training program embodies the enthusiasm within the Center and the Brown School to collaborate across the school, the university, and beyond.

Powell said that along with the center’s leadership in implementation research, it will expand future efforts into community-engaged research, partnering with on-the-ground organizations to design and conduct research that will make the most critical impact.

“The T32 fellowship and associated CMHSR efforts such as the Implementation Research Institute have been influential in building and nurturing a broad network of scholars nationally,” Powell said. “We will continue to collaborate with that network in an effort to improve the quality of behavioral health services nationally and internationally.”

“Through CMHSR and its training programs (T-32 and IRI) we are building a tremendous legacy developing the next generation of leaders in mental health services research dedicated to improving the lives of people and families living with mental illness through science, policy and practice,” said Cabassa.

CMHSR will celebrate their accomplishments and look toward the future with a relaunch event on March 24, 3:00-5:00 p.m. in the Clark-Fox Forum, Danforth Campus. For more information, contact Stacey McCrary.