Vice Chair for Faculty, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
Director of Clinical and Educational Programs, Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center
Myra S. Meyer Professor in Mood Disorders
Karen Swartz’s career in psychiatry almost seems predestined. “I was the person that everyone always talked to about their issues, so everyone joked that of course I would be a psychiatrist,” says Swartz. Fortunately, she says, none of them had serious concerns that would have required a trained mental health professional, but she found the role rewarding.
Swartz says she has always been excited about the brain. Coming from a family with several doctors, the idea of going into medicine made sense for her. She majored in chemistry in college but learned she wanted a career that incorporated science in a way that was more interactive with other people. Then in medical school at Johns Hopkins, as Swartz completed rotations in different departments, she found she loved psychiatry and getting to interact with the patients. She stayed on for an internship and residency in psychiatry, and completed a fellowship at Johns Hopkins’ Affective Disorders Consultation Clinic and postdoctoral work in psychiatric epidemiology before joining the faculty in 1997.
The next year, Swartz was called on to help out with a local crisis. In 1998, three high school students in the Baltimore area committed suicide within a two-month period. Community representatives approached Johns Hopkins for help, and with her background in mood disorders and public health, Swartz found herself speaking to high school students and teachers about depression.
Then, with seed money from local business leaders, Swartz and colleagues created the Adolescent Depression Awareness Program (ADAP), a school-based program to educate high school students, faculty and parents about adolescent depression. The three-hour curriculum, now taught primarily by counselors and teachers in high schools (who bring back the lessons to their students after being trained), has been presented to over 108,000 high school students in the Baltimore-Washington area and 20 other states. The program has received an Outstanding Merit Award from the Maryland Foundation for Psychiatry, and a National Institute of Mental Health-funded clinical trial demonstrated that the lessons learned had lasting effects on students. Information about teen depression has since been made available through a free mobile app, mADAP.
Donors have provided additional monies to create a sophisticated ADAP online training program that Swartz and associates are working on now. When that is completed in less than a year, she says, “we will be able to offer the training to any high school teacher in the country.”
Swartz has balanced work with the ADAP program with serving as clinical leader of the Mood Disorders Program at Johns Hopkins, providing specialty care for patients with mood disorders in inpatient, day hospital, consultation clinic and outpatient settings. She has become nationally recognized for her clinical expertise in the diagnosis, formulation and treatment of patients with mood disorders. One of her research interests is studying mood disorders in women.
In 2018, Swartz took on an additional role, as vice chair for faculty for the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, where she has enjoyed mentoring young faculty. “It’s really important, especially for junior faculty, to have advocates who can be a source of information or someone they can talk to about issues that come up…Academic medicine is a challenge, and it’s very demanding. If you find work that you’re passionate about, then you are much more likely to be successful.”
Swartz says she enjoys balancing these different roles.
“I’m someone who likes having different things going on—I’m never bored,” Swartz says. “But what I love most is taking care of patients and interacting with the patients and their families. Everything else really builds out of that. If you look for a theme in my career, it’s education about mood disorders. I love teaching residents and medical students about mood disorders so they will be in a better position to take good care of patients. I love teaching the patients and their families about mood disorders so they can be more active partners in care. And in the vice chair role, I enjoy helping younger faculty members understand the system so they’re in a position to make more informed choices about their careers.”