Emerging Scholars Fellowship: Meet Margaret Rowland

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bioethics photoHello all! My name is Margaret, and I’m a graduating senior at the University of Connecticut, where I’m pursuing majors in Psychology and Physiology & Neurobiology (PNB) with a minor in Neuroscience.

After graduating, I hope to work as a research assistant in a clinical neuroscience lab, with the ultimate goal of pursuing a PhD in clinical psychology. I have a motorcycle named Annie and a hedgehog named Bruce Quillis, and when not conducting research, I enjoy playing with both of them.

bruce quillis

Bruce Quillis

I currently work in a behavioral neuroscience laboratory under the wonderful Dr. John Salamone, where my research focuses on utilizing animal models of depressive symptoms to better understand the neurochemical causes of depression and related psychiatric conditions.

Previously, I conducted fMRI research on neuroanatomical abnormalities of the limbic system in depressed adolescents, health psychology research on behavioral interventions to increase medication compliance, and clinical research on the efficacy of novel smoking cessation therapies.

…And my Emerging Scholars Fellowship project is not associated with any of these things.

Before I explain my Emerging Scholars project, I should probably explain a little bit more about how I became interested in conducting research in a seemingly esoteric field like mental healthcare ethics.

My current work in Dr. Salamone’s lab focuses primarily on pre-clinical pharmacology (basically, studying psychiatric drugs in animal models of psychological disorders before those drugs are used on people with those disorders). I enjoy this research because it provides a powerful tool for clinicians to use when determining what medication to prescribe for patients.

Despite its usefulness, I have been aware for years that this sort of work does not provide much help when determining how to prescribe medication.

The importance of knowing how to ethically prescribe medication was underscored while conducting my smoking cessation research in the emergency department of a nearby city. The department was large enough to include a specific psychiatric emergency unit, and it was on this unit that I met the individuals who would convince me to pursue a career in clinical psychology.

Many of them were patients – the manic clergyman involuntarily medicated for seeing God, the depressed teenager unable to consent to her own treatment, and the child-like old man with complications related to the lobotomy he received in his youth.

Some, however, were staff members. All of the unit’s staff cared deeply about the patients, but few were able to offer comprehensive care. Many patients were prescribed multiple psychotropic medications by psychiatrists unable to spend more than a few minutes with them, while most psychologists and social workers lacked the training necessary to understand why patients were prescribed so many drugs in the first place.

What most struck me was that the staff’s inability to meet the needs of their patients was not the result of callousness or carelessness; most of the staff cared deeply about and worked heroically for their patients. Instead, it seemed that the mental healthcare training system was flawed.

The mental healthcare professionals on the unit lacked the training to even recognize ethical dilemmas, let alone adequately respond to them. This experience inspired my desire to become a clinical psychologist and work with underserved psychiatric populations, but it also inspired me to examine our current mental healthcare system to try to identify the shortcomings that allow these ethical dilemmas to occur.

Thus, although my Emerging Scholars project is not associated with any other research endeavors of mine, to say that it exists fully independent of my previous work in bioethics, clinical psychology, and psychopharmacology would be incorrect. I consider this project a synthesis of my interests that will hopefully allow mental healthcare professionals to recognize and appropriately respond to ethical dilemmas in mental healthcare.

Ultimately, my goal is to help more individuals with mental illness experience competent and compassionate clinical care that is strongly informed by empirical research and ethical values.

Now that I’ve explained a bit about how this project arose and why I consider it so important for the future of mental healthcare, a bit about my actual project. I plan to survey a sample of practicing mental healthcare professionals on a variety of ethical scenarios related to pharmacotherapy (i.e., the use of psychiatric medication as therapy).

The survey will present a series of hypothetical ethics violations varying in severity, and respondents will be asked to select the most appropriate response to the ethical dilemma from a multiple-choice series of potential answers. Surveys will be sent to clinical psychologists (those with prescriptive authority as well as those without), and psychiatrists.

I’m truly excited to begin my Emerging Scholars project, and of course to tell y’all about it. I’ll be updating this blog regularly about my research progress (and posting more pictures of Bruce), so stay tuned.

Next month, I’ll be talking about my awesome mentor, his influence on my work, and his current role in my project. In case you can’t wait a month to learn more about my project, I’ve posted links to a few of my favorite mental health ethics resources, including one published by my National Mentor Dr. Dominic Sisti.