Meet new faculty member Kimberly Becker

Name: Kimberly Becker

Current position: Assistant professor, psychology

Degrees: Bachelor’s in psychology, College of William & Mary; doctorate in psychology, University of Arizona; respecialization certificate in clinical psychology, University of Hawaii.

What brought you to South Carolina?

I had completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and was a research faculty member at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (Department of Psychiatry). I did not have the opportunity to teach there as much as I’d like, so I was looking for more classroom teaching opportunities and the possibility of having undergrads and grad students in my lab on a long-term basis. What I really liked about the psychology department here is that I’m a clinical psychologist by training and this is a combined clinical/community psych program. There aren’t many programs like this in the country that are oriented so heavily towards the application of clinical research in community settings. There are also a number of initiatives at the state level to improve mental health services, so that is another exciting feature about South Carolina. Overall, delivering mental health services can be very challenging, and I am looking forward to working with people who oversee and provide services and talking about what ideas science might offer about how to solve those problems.

Tell us about your background.

I went to William & Mary for undergraduate studies and became very interested in topics related to mental health and the law. I was particularly drawn to juvenile justice and how people with mental health needs are treated in the legal system. After earning my doctorate, I lived in Hawaii where there was a statewide initiative to improve mental health services. It was there where I was exposed to a number of innovations in mental health services and where I connected with colleagues who are my primary collaborators today.   

What’s your current area of research?

I work primarily with children, adolescents and families, focusing on evidenced-based treatments for a variety of problems that youth and families might face. I’m interested in innovations in treatment design that give some flexibility to providers over the course of treatment.

Some mental health treatments are very unstructured, with the mental health provider letting each meeting be guided by what the youth or family wants to talk about. Unstructured treatment can be difficult because the goals might not be clear and then it’s not clear whether the youth is getting better.

Other treatments are more like a cookbook, laying out different steps to teach a family, with the expectation that the provider will follow them like a recipe, step by step. What happens, though, is that a lot of things come up that aren’t addressed in these manuals. Maybe a family member is dealing with different crises — trouble at school or homelessness — or maybe the family isn’t very engaged in treatment so they don’t attend regularly.

There are a lot of unexpected situations that a provider might encounter that a treatment manual doesn’t address. Providers like choices, and they have a lot of clinical expertise, so some of my work involves thinking about more flexible treatment designs that incorporate the ingredients that science has shown to be important for positive outcomes but that also gives providers the ability to choose from among different ingredient options.

What are your goals?

I was awarded a grant over the summer from the William T. Grant Foundation, which funds research to increase the use of research evidence in clinical decision-making. In children’s mental health, we have a thousand studies that collectively tell us what works for different children’s mental health problems, but this research is typically not available to or in a format that is usable by mental health providers.

Whereas some funders continue to fund research focused on developing new treatments, the W.T. Grant Foundation funds research that examines ways to get existing research into the hands of front-line providers.

My specific area of interest involves helping families connect with and remain in treatment long enough to get the benefits of services. In the field, we refer to this as “treatment engagement.” Along with colleagues at UCLA, we’ve designed a toolkit that will help providers work with their clinical supervisors to (1) identify families who are at risk for low-treatment engagement, (2) use data to understand the nature of the engagement risk, (3) use research evidence to make a plan to improve engagement and (4) collect data to see how their plan is working by measuring family engagement in services.

We’ve trained about 70 school-based mental health providers in Los Angeles, and in January 2018 we plan to start training partners in South Carolina to use this toolkit, with the goal of seeing whether this process will increase providers’ use of research evidence when they are making clinical decisions. 

What are you most looking forward to about being at Carolina?

I taught my first graduate class here recently, and I’m really excited about working directly with undergraduate and graduate students in my research, as well as talking to faculty and students about some of the most pressing issues in clinical psychology. It’s an exciting time to be a clinical psychologist in South Carolina, where leaders within the state mental health system are implementing a number of new initiatives.

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