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A Boon for Children’s Mental Health Services

A Boon for Children’s Mental Health Services

For 31 years, beloved child psychiatrist James Connaughton mentored young psychiatrists at Johns Hopkins and taught them the art and science of interviewing children with mental health problems. A trailblazer who advocated for a holistic approach to treatment, Connaughton, in 1981, founded the Children’s Mental Health Center, a community psychiatric clinic to treat children with psychological trauma and behavioral problems. He died in 2011, but his legacy will live on, thanks in part to an endowed professorship established by his children.

At a time when some people thought of East Baltimore as an area of great danger, Connaughton “doubled down on building relationships and working in the community,” says pediatrician and psychiatrist Lawrence Wissow, who last November became the inaugural James P. Connaughton, M.D., Master Clinician, Educator and Professor for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “He was a terrifically compassionate guy who refused to be distant from the families he worked with. He believed in the power of warmth, empathy and connection as a therapeutic tool, and one for bridging the cultural and socioeconomic divide.”

Wissow, who first encountered Connaughton as a pediatric resident in the 1980s, has spent a career working in nontraditional mental health settings, such as Head Start centers and outreach clinics for new immigrants. He has studied psychosocial issues in children and families in different cultures domestically and around the world. Since 2005, he has been part of the pediatric HIV clinic at Johns Hopkins. The endowed professorship offers a chance to take Connaughton’s vision to a new level, Wissow says.

“We have a chance to create a real center for thinking and learning about how to do population-based, two-generational work on behalf of kids and families,” says Wissow, whose ideas include partnering with after-school tutoring and economic counseling opportunities for children and parents, and working with primary care clinics and school-based programs.

To that end, he has joined forces with Ekaterina Stepanova, who in August 2015 became medical director of the Children’s Mental Health Center, following a few years in private practice.

“All of our therapists are trained in various aspects of psychotherapy,” she says. “The most recent training was in trauma-focused therapy—it’s helpful in Baltimore, given that a lot of the kids experience traumatic events.” Stepanova would also like to start an intensive outpatient program, where children with disruptive behaviors and aggression can come after school for rigorous programming. Research projects at the center include validating a blood test for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in children and adults.

“The clinic is going to grow,” adds Stepanova, “and our goal is to make it into more of a center of excellence, where we can combine great family-centered patient care with training and research that will help us better respond to the community’s needs.”

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