SPH Launches Center for Trauma and Mental Health
Launched in advance of Mental Health Awareness Month, the Center will research and develop public health strategies to address the health consequences of stress and trauma. Jaimie Gradus will lead the center, which envisions a future where mental health achieves parity with physical health in terms of cultural acceptance and accessibility of services.
When post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was first introduced in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980, a traumatic event was characterized as a catastrophic stressor outside the range of usual human experience, such as warzone combat. Understanding of trauma has evolved over time and led the DSM to broaden the definition of a traumatic event to include more common experiences, such as domestic violence. While this progress has enabled clinicians to better identify and treat individuals in crisis, PTSD and other diagnosable mental disorders represent only a fraction of the problem.
Research at the School of Public Health has shown that over the course of their lives people experience a range of negative events—such as financial pressure, racial discrimination, and the COVID-19 pandemic—that do not all meet DSM criteria for trauma but can cause significant distress and affect physical and mental health in a similar manner. By this definition, trauma is not an unusual experience but rather an important determinant of the health of populations, particularly marginalized communities.
To synergize efforts across the school to address the heavy societal burden of trauma, SPH has launched the Center for Trauma and Mental Health (CTMH), a cross-disciplinary hub for scholarship to further understand the full spectrum of stressful and traumatic events and their consequences. The center will be the largest of its kind, bringing together researchers, clinicians, policymakers, students, and community members to advance public health strategies that identify vulnerable populations and prevent adverse health outcomes.
“Among the many lessons of 2020, with the pandemic and murder of George Floyd, a really salient one for me was that we need better public health approaches to addressing stress, trauma, and mental health on a population-wide scale,” says Jaimie Gradus, associate professor of epidemiology at SPH and psychiatry at BU’s Chobanian and Avedisian School of Medicine and director of CTMH. She recently received a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how post-traumatic mental health conditions may affect cardiovascular disease risk and explore possible differences in risk by sex.
Equity and justice will serve as guiding principles for the center, which will emphasize community engagement in all aspects of its work and focus on changing systems, policies, and programs for the benefit of all.
“As an activist school of public health, we have already taken the lead on addressing inequities across many domains of health and this will be no exception.”
“Research has shown that stress, trauma, and poor mental health have a disproportionally negative impact on the lives of people who are already vulnerable, marginalized, and historically disenfranchised. As an activist school of public health, we have already taken the lead on addressing inequities across many domains of health and this will be no exception,” says Gradus, who spearheads the school’s Mental and Behavioral Health strategic direction—one of five strategic directions reflecting critical public health needs where SPH shows both strength and potential for growth.
Carol Dolan, clinical associate professor of community health sciences, serves as faculty advisor to the student organization Mental Health Public Health Connections (MHPHC) and teaches several courses on mental health, including Stress as a Public Health Problem, and Trauma, Trauma-informed Care, Recovery and Resilience. Dolan says she has witnessed growing awareness that mental health is not exclusively a personal matter but a matter of public health since the appointment of Dean Sandro Galea, a scholar of trauma himself, and the introduction of the mental health and substance use context certificate to the MPH program.
As certificate director, Dolan has led the growth of the mental health and substance use certificate to 12 courses across nearly every department. CTMH will further enhance multi-disciplinary collaboration at SPH as well as provide more training and networking opportunities to students, says Dolan. “We’ve got a lot of dots and I think that’s what the center can do, connect the dots.”
In alignment with School’s core purpose—Think. Teach. Do. For the Health of All—the mental health and trauma portfolio at SPH covers a variety of areas of public health research, training, and practice. Current areas of study and ongoing programs include climate change and mental health after natural disasters, psychosocial stressors and health in Asian American women, risk of suicide in transgender college students, racial discrimination and preterm birth, behavioral neurotoxicology and Gulf War Illness in veterans, health service delivery to survivors of overdose, racial disparities in firearm injuries, mental health advocacy for children involved in the court system, training of health professionals to support mental health in schools, and global health storytelling.
“The Center for Trauma and Mental Health aims to catalyze the work done at the school in this area across departments, and to lead the way to new areas of science and practice that can advance the field,” says Dean Galea. “I am looking forward to engaging with, and learning from, the center.”
Click here to learn more about the Center for Trauma and Mental Health.