Advocate Dr. Altha Stewart Joins the JED Advisory Board Team

The Jed Foundation Advisory Board brings together clinical experts in mental health and suicide prevention to advise on strategy and evaluation of JED’s programs and initiatives, and provide insight into current research that informs our work. JED’s newest Advisory Board Member, Altha Stewart, M.D., has dedicated her career to protecting youth mental health and promoting equity in mental health services. She served as past president of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation and is currently an associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

We spoke with Dr. Stewart about her new role as a JED Advisory Board Member, the critical issues facing students today, and more.

Q. Why are you working with The Jed Foundation?

A. The better question may be, why did it take me so long to work with The Jed Foundation? The goals and mission and vision of the foundation totally align with my professional goals and passions, and with what we as a society need to do in support of better mental health for our young adults.

Q. What can we do to better address the mental health of young people during and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic?

A. We’ve got to be aware, we’ve got to educate ourselves, and we’ve got to let go of the stigma and the shame that adults feel about mental health that we then impose on our young adults so that they begin to feel bad about any challenge to their psychological well-being. We need to get to a place where we can say, “It’s ok when you’re not ok.” We’ve got to acknowledge that not all young adults handle stress in the same way, and that we build resilience in our young people by building protective factors around them. This is particularly important when we’re talking about youth in communities of color and youth who are otherwise disenfranchised because of poverty, socioeconomic status, or where they live.

Schools and communities can be protective factors when they understand the impact of trauma, mental illness, and stress on the life of a young person. Other community systems—law enforcement, legislatures, businesses—have a role to play in creating a positive environment for our young adults so they get a fair shot at a positive trajectory in their lives. There’s a quote from the late psychiatrist Dr. Carl Bell that says, “risk factors are not predictive factors, due to protective factors,” meaning that if we understand the risks to our young people’s health and well-being psychologically, and we understand what kinds of protective factors can help them to not experience them, overcome them, or mitigate impact, then we can help them to be on a positive trajectory for their future. If we spend time building strong young people, we can spend less time repairing broken adults.

Q. How can we work to improve mental health services in our schools and communities?

A. It’s important to make people aware and help them to acknowledge that young people who act out are not bad. Punishing them instead of providing them with treatment is not youth friendly or trauma informed. It does nothing to prepare that individual to deal with the challenges they will face as they continue to grow and develop. When young people have an adverse experience, we want them to learn how to deal with it in a healthy manner, so that they can carry that skill into their adulthood. Giving young people a healthy way to cope and deal with their stress prepares them for life’s challenges.

Altha J. Stewart, MD, has held several leadership roles at the American Psychiatric Association, including secretary of APA, past president of the APA Foundation, chair of the APA Conflict of Interest Committee, and chair of the Minority Fellowship Selection Committee. Dr. Stewart previously served as Executive Director for Just Care Family Network, Memphis’ federally funded System of Care program for children with serious emotional disorders and their families. Additionally, Dr. Stewart was Director of Systems of Care for the Shelby County Office of the Public Defender. Prior to this she served as Executive Director of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for Mental Health Services funded National Leadership Council on African-American Behavioral Health. Dr. Stewart is currently an associate professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

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