Doctoral psychology student Elena Schiavone dreams of a world where anyone can receive mental health services, regardless of where they come from or how much money they have. And she won’t stop until she sees real positive change.
Her passion for partnering with marginalized communities to advance health equity through policy change led her to the Health Policy Research Scholars program, a national leadership program funded by the philanthropic Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that provides scholars with an annual award of $30,000. The program is facilitated through the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The program provides scholars with formal training on public policy in the form of online courses and seminars that focus on teaching skills to put their research into action.
The program focuses on bridging the gap between research and policy to create real-world change in the nation, which is exactly what Schiavone was looking for.
“No matter how many amazing, meaningful, and novel mental health research findings we get, if it doesn't translate into policy-level change, its impact will be very limited,” Schiavone said. “I want to make systemic change toward mental health equity in a way that reaches all communities, not just those that happen to have good health insurance.”
Schiavone is a part of the Nurturing All Families through Advances in Services Innovation Research (NAFASI) research team at FIU as part of her doctoral studies, which is led by her mentor, Stacy Frazier.
Schiavone focuses on increasing the accessibility and cultural awareness of mental health services provided to youth and families from systematically marginalized communities, currently working with those in South Florida.
“Elena brings so much vision, heart and insight around our responsibility as psychologists to advocate for social justice by bridging research, practice and policy,” said Frazier, who is a psychology professor. “It's easy to feel paralyzed by the enormity of systemic inequities, but Elena’s an extremely talented and tenacious student whose resolve enables her to mobilize and motivate others toward action.”
As a Nicaraguan-Italian-American whose mother immigrated to the United States, she credits her intentional interest in helping disadvantaged communities to how she was raised.
“From a young age, my mother highlighted her own personal stories coming from Nicaragua, which planted seeds in my understanding of what it means to live in a world where there are systems of oppression,” Schiavone said. “My parents educated me on how my upbringing was privileged. They instilled in me gratitude for my family’s sacrifices and taught me to practice reciprocity by serving others. It has a huge influence on the work that I do.”
One of the reasons Schiavone chose FIU is because of its proximity to diversity, with hopes of bringing her justice-oriented, bicultural experience and Spanish language skills to the field.
“FIU offers me the opportunity to serve diverse, marginalized communities,” Schiavone said. “Miami has such wonderfully ethnically and racially diverse communities.”
Therapy is not “one size fits all,” says Schiavone, because all people are a combination of many different intersecting identities, whether that be in terms of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender or sexuality.
She advocates for the personalization of therapy services through comprehensive training for mental health professionals so that they can better address people’s specific needs.
“Everyone who wants mental health services should not only be able to afford it, but also be able to get services that have been found to be effective for them as a person with the various identities they hold,” Schiavone said.