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VOL. 132 | NO. 45 | Friday, March 3, 2017

UTHSC Professor Named First African-American to Lead APA

BY MICHAEL WADDELL, Special to The Daily News

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Dr. Altha Stewart of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis says being named president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association is a tremendous and humbling honor and that she is looking forward to leading the organization.


Stewart, an associate professor of psychiatry and director of the UTHSC Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth, is the first African-American to lead the 173-year-old institution, which specializes in the diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and research of mental illnesses, including substance-use disorders. She is also the fourth consecutive woman chosen to lead the association and its approximately 37,000 psychiatrist members.

“I’m of course proud, but humbled,” said Stewart. “I think it’s a historic moment in the history of the organization and in the field of psychiatry here in the United States. It signals that we are moving in the right direction in how leadership is identified and selected.”

She added the APA has had close to a dozen women presidents since the 1980s, but this is the first time there have been four in row.

Stewart’s career spans three decades of public-sector administration work, including time as director of public behavioral health systems in Detroit, New York City and Philadelphia, and she has served as president of Association of Women Psychiatrists and president of the Black Psychiatrists of America.

“Having now served as president of both the woman’s psychiatry organization and the black psychiatry organization, I find myself now at the intersection of race and gender at a time when in our country both of those issues are hot-button topics and very much in need of service, support and attention from the psychiatric community,” she said.

Following confirmation at the APA board of directors’ March meeting, Stewart’s term as president-elect will begin in May at the conclusion of the APA’s annual meeting in San Diego, when current president-elect Dr. Anita Everett will begin her one-year term as president.

“This was an historic election for the APA, reflecting the wide diversity of the organization, which is our strength,” said APA CEO and medical director Dr. Saul Levin in a prepared statement. “I look forward to working with Dr. Stewart and want to personally congratulate all the winners. I also want to salute the other candidates.”

Stewart previously served as president of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation and has held several other leadership positions within the APA, including secretary of the board of trustees, chair of the Conflict of Interest Committee and the Minority Fellowship Selection Committee, and member of the Joint Reference Committee and the Council on Advocacy and Government Relations.

Stewart, a native Memphian, moved back to the city 12 years ago, and her first position upon her return was managing a federal grant for Shelby County. Under Mayor A C Wharton’s administration, she assisted in developing a holistic approach to providing services for children who are in the juvenile justice system. That work led to her being hired by UTHSC to develop the Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth

“The center was created to support and facilitate some of the juvenile justice reforms that are underway, taking a public health approach instead of a law enforcement approach,” said Stewart. “Our focus is on understanding from a developmental standpoint what may be some of the triggers to behaviors and looking for ways to provide interventions that focus on those things.”

Her hope is early intervention will help to prevent changes in the developing brains of some children that might lead them on a path to incarceration and instead helped them to recover and lead productive lives.

She also wants to look closer at the use of technology with behavioral health care.

“We’ve got a growing number of young APA members who were raised on technology, who are very innovative in ways that technology can support advancing treatment of mental health disorders,” Stewart said.

Her priorities when she takes over the role of APA president in May 2018 include advocating for regulatory and fiscal policy realignment and accountable payment structures at federal and local levels, improving communication with members and strengthening relationships with medical colleagues to expand access through collaborative care models. Other priorities include making APA relevant to members to promote increased involvement at all levels and leading efforts to expand mentoring and leadership opportunities for resident fellow members and early career psychiatrists.

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