Tackling disparities and stigma around obesity and mental health care for minority populations

Tiffani Washington
Tiffani Washington

Physician and mother of four Tiffani Bell Washington, MPH ’22, was recently honored by the National Minority Quality Forum as one of its “40 Under 40 Leaders in Minority Health.”

May 17, 2022—Tiffani Bell Washington traces her commitment to public health to a devastating time in her life. Just days before her 16th birthday, her father passed away at age 45. Like others in her family who had died at young ages, Washington’s father suffered from chronic and obesity-related health conditions. Living through this experience solidified her childhood fascination with medicine into a goal to help avert similar tragedies, she said. “I didn’t want other people to lose loved ones to preventable diseases.”

Washington went on to become a physician, quadruple board-certified in adult psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry, obesity medicine, and lifestyle medicine. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, she worked at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston Salem, NC, first as an assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry and then as a psychiatrist in their weight management program. She also began working as a correctional psychiatrist communicating with inmates in Georgia via telemedicine. As health outcomes continued to get worse nationwide, particularly for people of color and low-income communities, Washington decided it was time to return to the classroom. She started an accelerated MPH program (MPH-45) at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health last summer, and will graduate later this month.

“The pandemic reminded me that I want to affect people’s health on a large scale, not just one on one,” she said. “I want to keep doing some clinical medicine, but I think it is the big policies that make the most difference. If we don’t change those, then people will get lost in the shuffle.”

Washington came to the School to build on her research and leadership skills in minority health policy, but as the mother of four young children, she also had another goal for returning to the classroom—to let her kids see that there is no limit to what they can accomplish. “I’m hoping their future will be devoid of limitations based on race or preconceived barriers placed unfairly upon them,” she said.

Emerging leader

When Washington was growing up, her mother, a single parent and nurse, encouraged her and her sister to aim for excellence in everything they do. But when Washington started pursuing her goal to become a physician, she got little encouragement beyond her family and a few mentors.

“I was generally doubted and told that my chances were slim because so few Black people become doctors,” she said. “I encountered opposition on every level, but I continued to stay focused.” She noted that she now takes whatever opportunity she can to encourage young people of color who are interested in careers in science and medicine.

After earning a BS in biology and chemistry from Virginia’s Norfolk State University in 2007, Washington went on to earn a medical degree from Medical College of Virginia, and completed a residency and fellowship in psychiatry at Wake Forest School of Medicine.

In the months before coming to Harvard Chan School, Washington started a private practice focused on culturally centered obesity and mental health care. Earlier this year, the National Minority Quality Forum named her one of its 40 Under 40 Leaders in Minority Health in recognition of her clinical work and her volunteer leadership with organizations including the American Medical Association, Black Psychiatrists of America, and Pierce Bell Institute of Black Psychiatry, an advocacy organization she helped found that is focused on Black people’s unique mental health needs.

Fighting stigma

During the pandemic, Washington said that she was struck by the number of adults who came into her practice struggling with depression and anxiety for the first time in their lives. She’s hopeful that this might lead to greater empathy for others who struggle with mental illness. “I think COVID-19 opened a lot of people’s eyes to the fact that these conditions can happen to anybody,” she said. “It’s not a personal failing, and it’s treatable.”

Washington has been seizing her time at Harvard Chan School to push forward with her work in this and other areas. She did research with Fatima Cody Stanford, an obesity medicine physician and researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and co-authored several papers with her. She also pursued a concentration in the Public Health Leadership Lab, and helped form an affinity group for Harvard Chan School students of color with a focus on mentorship.

Her adviser Alecia McGregor, assistant professor of health policy and politics, called Washington a “one-of-a-kind scholar and physician.” She said, “Through her clinical, academic, and service work, [Washington] demonstrates a clear commitment to improving Black mental health and eliminating health disparities. She is a deeply empathetic person, and I have no doubt that her work will continue to touch the lives of many and leave an imprint on the field of public health.”

As she wraps up her degree program and plans what next, Washington said she valued the opportunity to take time out of her busy life to have conversations with her fellow students. “It’s been good to find a core group of people who I can study with, and talk to about how we’re going to make the most out of our education.”

After graduation, she plans to continue her clinical work and volunteer service, and pursue research. Ultimately, she hopes to form a nonprofit focused on decreasing stigma around obesity and mental health care.

A cheerleader from childhood to college, Washington describes herself as “pretty high energy.” She sometimes has to remind herself that she can’t do everything. “I do the most important thing at the time,” she said. “I allow myself to drop a few balls—just not the glass balls, the ones that really matter.”

Faith and family keep her going, she said. Dancing to Beyoncé also helps. “I try to keep my keep my joy high,” she said. “In public health, we’re tackling pretty tough challenges. If we don’t keep ourselves uplifted, it’s really difficult to get out there and make things better for someone else.”

Amy Roeder

Photo: Kent Dayton