Stemming the health consequences of childhood trauma

Student Tiana Woolridge
Tiana Woolridge

Tiana Woolridge, MPH ’19, wants to help vulnerable children build strategies for mental wellness.

May 28, 2019—Tiana Woolridge knows that her life could have been very different. Her parents divorced when she was around seven years old, leaving her mother with a difficult choice—move back to rural Louisiana to raise her children with the support of family and friends, or stay in Los Angeles, where they had moved when Woolridge’s father, a professional basketball player, began playing for the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers. Her mother, wanting to keep the children on their academic path, decided to stay.

“She made a personal sacrifice to make sure that we could access the opportunities that she saw were possible at the elite schools we’d entered,” said Woolridge, who is graduating this month with an MPH degree in social and behavioral sciences from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Now, after spending the past year learning about the ways that traumatic childhood experiences can have lifelong effects on people’s health and socioeconomic circumstances, Woolridge is on a mission. She wants to ensure that more kids have the opportunity to grow up in environments that help them be healthy and pursue their dreams.

Woolridge will start her final year of medical school at the University of California, San Francisco, this fall, and plans to become a pediatrician. Ultimately, she sees herself focusing less on direct patient care and more on working with youth-serving organizations to create health-positive environments for all children. But despite her focus, she still seems surprised by how much her direction has changed in the months since she started her degree program.

She entered Harvard Chan School last fall on a Presidential Scholarship, hoping to learn more about health equity so that she could better serve vulnerable populations as an orthopedic surgeon. Deciding to switch to pediatrics a few months in was a big change for a lifelong meticulous planner. But in retrospect, Woolridge said. “It was like I walked into something I was meant to do.”

As an undergraduate at Princeton, Woolridge excelled in volleyball—a background she shares with Harvard Chan School Dean Michelle Williams, who also played the sport at Princeton. There, she also mapped out her pre-med courses on an Excel spreadsheet, and worked to achieve her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor. But during medical school rotations at a public hospital in San Francisco, she started thinking about taking a step back.

“I was getting so frustrated,” she said, by the limitations of what she could do for her mostly low-income patients. She recalled being on a medical team that treated a homeless man with intravenous antibiotics for an infection, only to see him return with the same condition days later. “I knew that for this person, the real solution was housing,” she said. “That made me think about what I could do outside of the hospital to get at the root causes of disease.”

Embrace the Mind

Woolridge decided to take a year away from the hospital, and spent the summer between medical school and Harvard Chan School working with her mother at the Inner City Education Foundation (ICEF) as a consultant. It’s a charter school management company in Los Angeles that predominantly serves African American and Hispanic students from low-income households, and staff wanted to understand how to address trauma, the root cause of many of their students’ learning and behavior challenges.

Although she was not versed in the topic, Woolridge agreed to dig into the research and prepare a series of presentations. She was particularly struck by the work of Nadine Burke Harris, MPH ’02, a pediatrician who was recently named the first surgeon general of California. Harris has described how traumatic childhood experiences can cause changes in the brain and hormonal system that can affect people’s health for the rest of their lives.

Woolridge’s presentations to ICEF inspired the organization to ask her to develop a wellness program for its schools. She agreed to take it on as her MPH practicum project, and spent the next few months applying laser-like focus to learning the ins and outs of launching a new program.

She sought out every opportunity to gather information and advice that could be applied to her program, which she had dubbed Embrace the Mind, including from Jack Shonkoff, Julius B. Richmond FAMRI Professor of Child Health and Development and Director of the Center on the Developing Child. And she made ICEF the topic of as many class assignments as she could, applying what she was learning to her goal.

Funded by a Rose Service Learning Fellowship, Woolridge spent January in LA piloting Embrace the Mind in two schools. The program aims to provide education on the science of mental health, reduce stigma about mental illness, and provide students, teachers, and families with the tools to build resiliency. It includes a mental wellness curriculum for students, and daily practices like breathing exercises and mindfulness, as well as educational and self-care activities for teachers and families.

“Tiana brought energy, passion and —it seemed to me—love to her practicum,” said her advisor Barbara Gottlieb, associate professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “She truly cared about every aspect of the work, every stakeholder, every detail. I have no doubt that the work she did will continue to make a sustained contribution.”

Because she’ll be returning to medical school next year, Woolridge helped ICEF hire a full-time wellness coordinator who can manage Embrace the Mind and expand it to all seven ICEF school sites. She said that the experience of developing the program into something that will grow and be sustainable was life changing.

“I was able to take what I’d learned in the classroom and implement it on the ground, and to feel like I was directly impacting people’s lives,” she said. “This year has set me up for my future.”

Amy Roeder

Photo: Sarah Sholes