'I want parents to know that I understand. You want things to be better and you’re doing your best.'
Kristin Carothers, PhD, knew she wanted to be a psychologist from a very young age after her mother, a special educator, told her about a tragedy involving one of her students. Now she is a clinical psychologist working in the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, providing care to families and training to teachers inside local schools.
What drew you to the field of mental health?
Kristin: My mother and two aunts are special educators who work in public schools where they often come into contact with kids who have had lots of trauma exposure. My journey to psychology was influenced by one of my mother’s students, who was a 14- year-old male who ended up being recruited by a gang. He engaged in a drive-by shooting, shot and killed another child and then he was killed by the gang. This kid had a horrible trauma history, didn’t have any family support, was being raised by a grandparent. I wondered what would have happened if there had been some system or some person that could have helped this family so that he would be protected from all the stress that he went through. And then two lives could have been saved.
When did you know you wanted to be a psychologist?
Kristin: Probably the first moment that I knew was when I was about ten or eleven years old and I visited my family in St. Louis. While I was there I visited a home one of my cousins started for children who were born drug addicted. She took me on a tour and I got to see all the different types of people who were there to work with these kids and their foster families. One of those people was a psychologist who was helping kids with bonding, self-soothing and emotional regulation. And I thought: I want to do what she does. I know for a fact my friends heard me talk a lot about it. In one of my high school yearbooks I recently found a note from one of my friends saying, “Good luck, hope you get to be a psychologist one day.”
“I wondered what would have happened if there had been some system or some person that could have helped this family.”
Now you work at the Child Mind Institute. What do you do here?
Kristin: I am a clinical psychologist in the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center. I conduct psychological evaluations for children and adolescents. I provide parent training for parents and individual cognitive behavioral therapy and social skills training for kids. Right now I’m also serving as a coach for teachers at the Harlem Village Academies because we have a grant from the Robin Hood Foundation to provide support for teachers.
What is it like working with parents?
Kristin: Parents have a difficult job; nobody’s taught them how to do it. They’re basically going off of what they’ve learned in their own models, whether or not they liked those models. That is what is influencing decisions they make as parents. I want parents to know that I understand. You want things to be better and you’re doing the best that you can.
One of the tools we give parents is really trying to help them understand the behaviors that they are seeing from their children. Helping them to understand that kids aren’t necessarily trying to make your life difficult or their own life difficult. Some of these behaviors are symptoms and there are things that you can do to help move past those symptoms.
What has been your most rewarding experience with a patient here?
Kristin: I was working with a 6-year-old girl who had had lots of problems in her kindergarten class. Her parents had been told she might be on the autism spectrum and they weren’t sure if the school was the right placement for her. The family was really open to our feedback and we started doing parent-child interaction therapy with them. Towards the end of treatment, her teachers had reported that her behavior had improved so vastly that they couldn’t understand what was being done. I wasn’t going into the school. I wasn’t telling them what to do with the child, I was only working with the child and her parents in the office setting. Through this treatment they learned ways to manage her behaviors, and she had tremendous gains. She even picked up on, “Oh, they’re helping me to calm down when I’m upset. They’re giving me the framework to respond to things when I’m upset.” It just really worked. It made me feel great.
“Mental health is like physical health is like spiritual health is like health. Mental health is health.”
Do you think there is a stigma around mental health?
Kristin: There is definitely stigma around mental health and I think that runs across classes, it runs across cultures, ethnicities, race. There is stigma around mental health and one of the reasons there is stigma is that people are sent so many negative messages about what it means to not be happy or to not be like the rest of the pack. And so if you are in any way different, it’s thought that you are deficient. So when we think about mental health, or even seeking treatment for mental health, the first thought is this means that I’m different. And if I’m different, there must be something wrong with me. That’s not true! You may function in a way that is different from other people and it may not be optimal but that doesn’t mean that you are any less of a person. That’s doesn’t mean that you won’t accomplish your goals. That doesn’t mean that you won’t live a full life. It’s just that you could benefit from some tools that would help you do that. So I really wish there was a way for us to say that mental health is like physical health is like spiritual health is like health. Mental health is health.