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Peterson Prize Winner - Ijeoma Achara-Abrahams, PsyD

On April 24, 2013, the 22nd Annual Peterson Prize was awarded to Dr. Ijeoma Achara-Abrahams for her outstanding work in behavioral health care in impoverished communities.
The Peterson Prize was created in honor of Donald Peterson, first Dean of the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology. The award is presented to an alumna/alumnus who have made significant contributions to the field of psychology.

Dr. Ijeoma Achara-Abrahams received her Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology from GSAPP in 2001, and has devoted her career to working on behalf of those with the deeply severe mental illnesses and psychological challenges.  She has worked directly with countless numbers of these individuals, and has also helped several agencies to improve their services. Dr. Achara-Abrahams has become increasingly involved in the policy arena at state, national, and international levels. 
Archara Peterson Prize Winner

Dr. Achara-Abrahams’ introduction to work at the policy level began while she was at Yale, where she was awarded a post-doctoral fellowship.  As part of her fellowship she worked with Connecticut’s Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.  Connecticut was the first state to adopt the “Recovery Oriented Systems of Care Model,” a “consumer-based, research-driven movement” designed to replace the traditional approach of stabilization and symptom remission with a more active attempt to improve the quality of life for those with severe mental illness. In addition, Dr. Achara-Abrahams has conducted program evaluations, participated in strategic planning, and assisted with the development of cultural specific programs.

Dr. Achara-Abrahams then spent four years as director of strategic planning in the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Mental Retardation Services. While in Philadelphia, Dr. Achara-Abrahams led the transformation of Philadelphia’s behavioral health system into a recovery-oriented system of care model. In addition to managing the system-wide change process, she increased the leadership of people in recovery, established peer-based support services, and increased community support for people with mental health and addiction issues. One of Dr. Achara-Abrahams’ most notable accomplishments in Philadelphia was transforming the publicly-funded mental health day program system.  As a result of this process, people became more integrated into their communities. As her work in Philadelphia became more widely known, Dr. Achara-Abrahams was asked to help other cities and states adopt the recovery-oriented system of care model. Because of Dr. Achara-Abrahams’ influential work, Philadelphia now is recognized nationally as a leader in the development of a recovery-oriented system of care. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control now strongly encourages all mental health and addiction state systems to align their service systems with the recovery-oriented approach. Dr. Achara-Abrahams currently consults with numerous public mental health and addiction service systems through her own private firm, Achara Consulting, Inc. Her work has become even more international, when she was asked to train Tanzanian government and health care leaders in the recovery-oriented system of care approach last year. 

The focus of Dr. Achara-Abrahams discussion centered on transforming the delivery of public behavioral health care, establishing roles for psychologists. She began by noting that the behavioral health care system faces many challenges. Specifically that the basic needs of people needing mental health services are being unmet. For instance, over 20 million substance users did not receive health services last year alone. In current behavioral health care systems, there are low pre-treatment initiation rates, low retention rates and poorer outcomes. Dr. Achara-Abrahams suggested that current health care systems in place frequently restrict services to “frequent flyers,” people who access care services too often, and the door to health care is shut to them. Dr. Achara-Abrahams stated that, “our public behavioral health care system is broken.”

Peterson Prize Her goal: to help under-served populations build a greater quality of life in their communities. According to Dr. Achara-Abrahams, improving quality health care is not just about reducing or eliminating negative symptoms. Dr. Achara-Abrahams noted that she worked towards this goal by implementing recovery-oriented systems of care (ROSC). A primary objective of ROSC are to prevent the development of behavioral health issues. Dr. Achara-Abrahams notes that her training at GSAPP equipped her to step into the role of working with health care at a state level. In a ROSC model, providers are not passive, but actively engage members of their community.

According to Dr. Achara-Abrahams, patients shouldn’t have to prove to providers that they are experiencing deeply severe pain; if people are looking to receive behavioral health assistance, then they are ready to receive treatment. The keys to successful recovery-oriented systems of care models are assertive outreach and engagement programs, using simple strategies, such as creating warm and welcoming environments at out-patient clinics. Additionally, treatment in ROSC are individualized; there is less focus on clinical concerns and more attention on patient’s goals and where patients would like to spend their energy.

During the colloquium, Dr. Achara-Abrahams also noted that health care in itself has a culture, and typically it is a different culture from those that are receiving behavioral health care services; unfortunately, most health care providers, therapists included, don’t see courses of treatment through the same lenses as their patients. When answering the question of how to transform a system of care, Dr. Achara-Abrahams simply stated that people in leadership positions need to take more active roles, and that these individuals need to focus on community integration. Dr. Achara-Abrahams ended by stating that “Health is more than the abuse of the system. It’s about having a purposeful, meaningful life, and having a life in your community.”

By: Ariane Singh