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Dr. Jonathan Alpert: Ensuring Diversity in Mental Health Research

Man in purple/red tie at desk talks to woman. Jonathan E. Alpert, M.D., Ph.D.

Dr. Jonathan Alpert: Ensuring Diversity in Mental Health Research

By Larry Katzenstein

Jonathan E. Alpert, M.D., Ph.D., is the Dorothy and Marty Silverman Chair in Psychiatry and chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Einstein and Montefiore. Dr. Alpert arrived in 2017 from Massachusetts General Hospital, where he was associate chief of psychiatry and director of the depression research program. He was also the first incumbent of the Joyce Tedlow Chair in the field of depression studies at Harvard Medical School.

Why did you specialize in psychiatry?

It is a remarkable field that spans basic neuroscience, clinical pharmacology, and social, emotional, and cognitive development. It engages fundamental questions such as what it means to be human and to live a good life. On a more personal level, I think clinicians are drawn to different forms of human suffering. As long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to suffering related to psychiatric conditions and to people traditionally marginalized in society and in healthcare due to mental illness or addiction.

What influenced you to leave Boston?

My wife and I were empty nesters, with two young-adult sons off at school, so we were at an inflection point when I was contacted about the department chair opportunity here. I was grateful for the wonderful career, outstanding colleagues, and formative opportunities I’d had in Boston. But with, I hope, a decade or more of active professional life ahead, it seemed like an ideal time to make a meaningful contribution elsewhere.

Were you familiar with Einstein and Montefiore?

I knew of Einstein and Montefiore by reputation and of Montefiore’s leading national role in behavioral-health integration in primary care and school health. And when I came here for interviews I was inspired by what I saw: a special place where commitments to advancing social justice and science—two values very important to me—are seamlessly interwoven and fully embraced across campuses.

I look forward to continuing to expand inclusive access to state-of-the-art care and to furthering Montefiore’s role as a global leader in healthcare and biomedical research.

—Dr. Jonathan Alpert

Was the Einstein and Montefiore consolidation an attraction?

Yes, very much. Among other things it created the opportunity for psychiatry to partner with Einstein’s exceptional department of neuroscience—one of the world’s first freestanding neuroscience departments. Working with neuroscience, we’ve launched PRIME (Psychiatry Research Institute at Montefiore and Einstein) in a refurbished research space on the fourth floor of Van Etten.

What does PRIME do?

PRIME will allow us to greatly increase clinical and translational research in psychiatry. Our health-equity research program within PRIME will enable us to study how factors such as socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and sexual or gender orientation affect mental health outcomes.

PRIME brings together clinically focused people like me and outstanding basic scientists, many of whom share a devotion to unraveling the mysteries of mental illness. We’re fortunate that our clinical programs serve diverse communities that are exceedingly underrepresented in studies on mental illness and addiction. We have the obligation to ensure that these diverse voices are better represented in psychiatry research.

What other programs have you started?

We have many new programs, thanks mainly to strong interdepartmental collaborations. We’ve worked with the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore emergency department to develop a specialized pediatric psychiatry emergency service to improve the care of children presenting with psychiatric problems. We’ve also joined with the dean’s office and Montefiore leadership to create the Einstein Student Mental Health Center, which provides expert, accessible evaluation and treatment for medical and graduate students on the Einstein campus.

Do people in the Bronx face unique mental health challenges?

Many patients we see have experienced some kind of major trauma. It might be physical violence, poverty, housing insecurity, dislocation from their country of origin—significant burdens that increase the risk of mental illness and addiction.

Could more be done to prevent mental health problems from developing?

Certainly. We can do more to impart practical coping and resilience skills in our school systems and to support good parenting skills, particularly for parents who’ve experienced early life adversity and trauma and aren’t fully equipped to be the parents they want to be. We need to enhance access to affordable, high-quality mental health services to address problems early on before they become severe and chronic.

What has been the main focus of your research?

I’ve been interested in mood disorders, particularly treatment-resistant major depressive disorder. Available therapies don’t work well enough for far too many individuals, and those gaps in knowledge and treatment continue to motivate me.

Have you read any good books lately?

I’m now reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. It raises fascinating, provocative questions about our improbable ascendancy as the dominant species on the planet.

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