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Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences celebrates 75 years

Nov. 14, 2022, 9:55 AM

by Bill Snyder

The Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences celebrated its 75th anniversary on Nov. 11 with an afternoon program that highlighted its contributions to professional education, research and clinical care.

“We wanted to recognize the important role of the department in the training of physicians and psychologists at Vanderbilt, showcase innovation in our clinical services, and highlight some of our research accomplishments,” said Stephan Heckers, MD, MSc, the William P. and Henry B. Test Professor of Schizophrenia Research and Chair of the Department.

Established in 1947 with funds from the National Institutes of Health and the Rockefeller Foundation, the department initially consisted of four faculty members. Today the department has 115 full-time, primary faculty.

“From the beginning, education was the foundation of the department,” said Heckers, who was named the department’s fourth chair in 2006. In addition to residency training and fellowship programs for physicians, the department trains psychologists and psychiatric nurse practitioners. Psychology is one of its five divisions.

At Vanderbilt, psychiatry is an integral part of medical training.

“First-year students get to interview patients in psychiatric crisis,” said Meg Benningfield, MD, who directs the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Classroom instruction is augmented by a rotation in the gross anatomy lab. “It’s an incredible experience to hold a human brain in your hand,” Benningfield said.

Research projects include how memory is created (and lost in dementia), the use of neuroimaging to study psychotic disorders, tools to reduce the risk of suicide in teens, and methods for improving cognitive outcomes and mood in late-life depression.
Autism spectrum disorder is another major research focus, for example, through the Laboratory of Affective Sensory Research, directed by Carissa Cascio, PhD, and the Social Emotional NeuroScience Endocrinology (SENSE) lab, directed by Blythe Corbett, PhD.
Clinical services range from the Bridge Clinic for patients with substance use disorder who are transitioning from hospital care to the community, to the Vanderbilt Center of Excellence for Children in State Custody.

“We probably care for some of the most acutely ill patients” at Vanderbilt, said Elizabeth Shultz, DO, medical director of the Neuromodulation Service, which provides transcranial magnetic stimulation and electroconvulsive therapy for major depressive disorder and other major psychiatric illnesses.

“You get to see people do well over time,” Shultz said. “You know you have an impact on their life.”

Dementia, drug abuse, teen suicide, COVID-19, weather-related catastrophes worsened by climate change — all take a toll on mental health, and the overall health of society.
“The biggest challenge is providing equitable access to high-quality mental health services,” Heckers said. Among future priorities, “we will diversify and grow our training programs, and advocate for greater awareness of the mental health problems in our community,” he said.


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