Moving the Needle Forward: CFAR Concentration Aims to Train Clinicians Keen on Supporting Children and Families Facing Adversity

Associate Professor, Julie Ryan with Dr. Sonya Kurzweil, PhD

Dr. Julie Ryan and Dr. Sonya Kurzweil

A growing awareness of mental health issues in children and families, a largely underserved group in the mental health field, has given rise to an urgent need for evidence-based treatments to address this trend. “Historically, it's been a crisis,” says Julie Ryan, PhD, Director, Children and Families of Adversity and Resilience (CFAR) Concentration of numbers that have reached levels unknown prior to the pandemic. “Part of our hope, with the CFAR concentration, is that we're training many clinicians to deliver evidence-based and culturally-informed treatments, so that we can start to address this problem,” she says, pointing to the clinical doctoral program for adult learners at William James College. While it remains unclear how much the pandemic exacerbated the mental health issues children and families were already facing, or if people became more comfortable talking about and seeking help for these issues, one thing is evident: Intervening sooner, rather than later, is essential in preventing long-lasting consequences. 

“It is easier to build strong children than to fix broken men,” says Ryan, referencing an 1855 statement made by Frederick Douglass that rings true today.

“When we support children and their families, we're giving them the best chance for success,” she explains, pointing to research that shows it requires less time and fewer dollars when mental health needs are addressed proactively as opposed to later in life.

The concept of developmental cascades—the understanding that the earlier things are problematic for a child, the more likely they are to impact developing systems and result in long-lasting consequences—further underscores the importance of early intervention. Despite these truths, challenges abound. 

A dearth of mental health providers across Massachusetts, particularly in rural areas, has caused the demand for resources that are both accessible and affordable to skyrocket. While the needs of young people remain similar in nature, they are greater in number and frequency than they were in 2020. “There are more kids noticing and reporting difficulty with anxiety and depression—and other internalizing problems, than there were prior to the pandemic,” says Ryan. Thankfully, William James College is rising to the occasion.

“For clinical psychology students interested in working with kids, the CFAR concentration provides a focus on training in the child-adolescent realm,” says Ryan, one augmented by a robust group of scientist-practitioner faculty uniquely positioned to shepherd students through quantitative and qualitative processes. Beyond highlighting their work in the field, and bringing current cases into the classroom, another boon of the CFAR concentration is connecting with practicing clinicians in the field, “who are doing impactful work,” says Ryan, pointing to individuals like Sonya Kurzweil, PhD, who visited campus on March 12 as part of the program’s Tuesday Speaker Series.

 A long-time psychologist with a private practice in Newton (where she specializes in working with women, children, parents and families), Kurzweil recently retired from the Harvard Medical Department psychiatry faculty, where she served for more than two decades; she remains a senior lecturer at William James College and delivered her talk, “Endings in Child Psychotherapy: 10 Guidelines for Clinicians”, to students enrolled in the CFAR concentration.  

“Language of what goes on in therapy is co-created,” said Kurzweil, who engaged the audience in conversation about the importance of including children in the decision-making process and celebrating the progress they have made. She went on to emphasize that most children and parents require guidance when it comes to ending the therapeutic relationship—no matter what their difficulties have been—which “offers a great opportunity to model a peaceful paradigm for saying goodbye, which is a very important life skill,” said Kurzweil whose connection to campus was formalized in 2018 when William James College established The Sonya Kurzweil Grant Program—made possible by a $10,000 recurring annual donation from the Sonya Kurzweil Developmental Center (SKDC), a nonprofit in neighboring Newton Highlands focused on providing mental health services to women, children, adolescents, parents, and families. The scholarship supports clinical psychology doctoral students pursuing research related to the mental health needs of children, adolescents, parents, and other caregivers.

In a 2018 article announcing the inaugural grants, Kurzweil shared her stance on the importance of working with young people and their caregivers: “I believe child-family practice and research to be at the forefront of progress in improving the mental health of our communities,” she said, before underscoring that her decision to give to William James College was fueled by “its commitment to bolstering child clinical psychology and the child behavioral health specialty, areas where there is a shortage of providers in many parts of the state and the country.” 

Since its inception, The Sonya Kurzweil Grant Program has awarded a pair of $5,000 grants to students working on doctoral projects in the child-family specialty. The first of its kind in the history of William James College, these grants provide students financial backing while they pursue research which promises to advance knowledge of best practices for treating psychological problems that afflict children, adolescents, parents, and families. To date, grant recipients have explored topics ranging from the role of sports-based after-school programs for underserved youth in supporting their mental health to the differences in kids’ social-emotional development, and by extension outcomes, prior to versus during the pandemic.

“Students in the program, who are doing their doctoral research projects on a youth or family topic, are highly motivated to apply for the Kurzweil grant because it provides flexible funding without restrictions,” says Ryan. From reimbursing research participants to covering cost of living expenses, each $5,000 grant rewards commitment to the child-family clinical specialty and allows students to advance their career goals by devoting more time to their clinical and research work. 

 While current CFAR students remain focused on promoting resilience among underserved children and families facing multiple adversities, one thing remains top-of-mind for Ryan: Getting kids in the community connected to evidence-based resources and making them more accessible. “Not only do we have a dearth of resources, but the resources we do have are oftentimes inaccessible and this is especially true for those with fewer means or those of marginalized identities,” says Ryan which, due to poor insurance reimbursement rates, has many mental health practitioners only accepting self-pay—”which keeps a lot of families from being able to access appropriate and evidence-based care.”