Harvard Psychology professor Katie A. McLaughlin was tapped last week to be the inaugural executive director of the Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health at the University of Oregon.
Funded by a gift of over $425 million from Steve A. Ballmer ’77, the former CEO of Microsoft, the Ballmer Institute will train educators in adolescent mental health and provide the first undergraduate child behavioral health major in the nation.
McLaughlin, who currently serves as the director of the Harvard Stress and Development Laboratory, primarily studies how a child’s environment influences their brain and behavioral development. She holds a joint Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and Chronic Disease Epidemiology from Yale University.
In taking the helm of the program — which will be based at the University of Oregon’s new Portland campus — McLaughlin said in an interview Monday that she hopes to deliver “system-wide change” that will shift childhood mental health care to a preventative model.
“Public health is really a model that focuses on this idea of prevention, early identification, and the delivery of interventions to prevent health problems from getting worse,” McLaughlin said. “And that hasn’t traditionally been the focus of psychology and psychiatry, social work, or really any of the mental health professions.”
“So tools to identify kids who are starting to struggle and delivering interventions that will prevent those problems from becoming worse over time — that’s really a completely novel approach to mental health services in the United States,” McLaughlin added.
McLaughlin said that the pandemic exacerbated the increasing rates of mental health issues among children and teenagers. She says that while some solutions emerged from the pandemic — such as increased access to telehealth services — there remains a shortage of childhood mental health professionals.
“The whole vision of the Ballmer Institute is based on an idea of training a workforce of mental health providers,” she said. “And this is one of the most promising solutions to the problem.”
To combat this shortage, the Ballmer Institute will provide an undergraduate program that allows graduates to enter directly into the workforce as child behavioral health specialists in Oregon. Currently, mental health professionals must undergo further training and education past an undergraduate degree in order to practice in the field.
“The idea here is that we’re creating a mental health profession that only requires a college degree to be ready to practice in the community,” McLaughlin said.
The program will serve as a model for other states to combat the current shortage of childhood mental health professionals, she said, with the training becoming “hopefully broadly available in the next five to 10 years.”
Despite her excitement to take up her new post in Oregon, McLaughlin expressed her gratitude for her colleagues and time in Cambridge.
“I’m incredibly excited about this opportunity because I see just enormous potential that it has to help so many children and families,” McLaughlin said.
“I’m also really sad to be leaving the amazing community here at Harvard, which has been remarkably nurturing and supportive of me and of my work,” she added.
McLaughlin will begin her new role in August.
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