“I try to show people how much their struggle is really part of the universal human condition, just like any other person.”
What was your path to becoming a psychiatrist?
My path began with a passion for the sciences. I loved being at the center of cutting edge research and the creativity that goes into the scientific process. After graduating college with a degree in biochemistry and time spent contemplating a career in the sciences, I ultimately decided on medical school because I wanted to merge my passion for science with caring for people directly. Growing up, my father was a counselor, so I was exposed to a role model who cared for others, and I found my experiences doing community service and helping others particularly rewarding. My two interests then converged during my training, where I pursued a PhD in neuroscience and a medical degree at Harvard Medical School. Then, I went onto work at Columbia University, where I balanced my time between seeing patients and doing lab-based research on addiction.
What drew you to addiction as an area of clinical focus, and how has your research informed your practice?
I initially became interested in the field of addiction because it felt like an area of mental health that was particularly stigmatized. For me, having grown up in Oakland during a time when drugs were an epidemic, it wasn’t something that gave me the willies – instead, it was something where I wanted to rush in and help.
So I built my research to answer what I saw as a fundamental question about human behavior: Why is the brain wired in such a way that it’ll keep doing something when all of evolution is saying, “This isn’t healthy!” Well, to understand people and the human condition, you have to understand the underlying circuits of the brain. Once we do that, we can utilize certain therapies to activate and strengthen certain circuits. It’s like physical therapy: if we’re trying to treat a leg injury, we need to understand its underlying bones, muscles, and nerves and then plan treatments tailored to specific areas that need focused attention. The same goes for mental health.
How do you approach collaboration between different disciplines and providers?
My colleagues and I like to refer to how we specialize in different areas as “sharpshooting” – each of us is particularly focused on something, and that’s what makes it so important to collaborate with one another. While I take a generalist approach at the beginning, I may discover that the best specific treatment for a client requires help from others. I think it’s crucial to be able to call on someone in your community who you trust that can come in and bring their expertise. In the academic research setting, it’s as simple as walking down the hall – and that’s exactly why I’m so excited about Alma: the collaboration we need is right next door.
How do you help people get over the stigma surrounding therapy?
I try to show people how much their struggle is really part of the universal human condition, just like any other person. When family is involved, I try to help them understand how their loved one’s situation is similar to things they experience themselves – how we all wrestle with similar challenges but these things might manifest differently for different people. I take a humanistic approach. These are things we’re all going through, and I want to normalize it.
What does a first meeting with you look like?
For our first meeting, it’s really important to do a big-picture, comprehensive evaluation, which usually requires two 45-minute sessions. I want to understand my clients from multiple perspectives: medical history (what’s the body doing?), social context (what’s their universe look like?), as well as their values and spiritual beliefs (what’s guiding them?). Going forward, I develop an evidence-based treatment plan based on the the latest statistics and research available (I’m still a scientist after all!). That said, at the end of the day, the person sitting in front of me is not a statistic. So I make sure we always tailor our approach to the person who has entrusted me with their care.
“The person sitting in front of me is not a statistic. The key is to put together a full understanding of the individual with a tailored, evidence-based approach.”