PORTLAND, Ore. — The University of Oregon has selected a new executive director for the Ballmer Institute for Children's Behavioral Health.
Katie McLaughlin, a Harvard University professor and clinical psychologist, will take over in August, leading the development of an undergraduate behavioral health program and a focus on early detection and prevention of mental health problems in children and adolescents.
“I’m incredibly excited, the vision of the Ballmer Institute is profoundly resonant for me," McLaughlin said in an interview with KGW. "This is an unprecedented platform and opportunity to really change the system in a way that makes it more responsive and more equitable to the needs of children and families."
McLaughlin currently works as a Professor of Psychology and the Director of the Stress and Development Laboratory at Harvard University. She plans to finish the spring semester before transitioning to her new role at the Portland-based Ballmer Institute.
In December, the University of Oregon received state approval to create a bachelor's degree program in Child Behavioral Health.
It is the first undergraduate behavioral health program of its kind in the United States, according to the university.
McLaughlin cited this program and the focus on building a new mental health workforce as key in attracting her to the new position.
"Opportunities for really changing systems come along very rarely," McLaughlin said. "When we think about workforce solutions, this is one that’s desirable not just on the demand side in terms of what children and families need, but in terms of the amazing and talented undergraduates we have who are hungry for an opportunity to serve their communities."
She said the Ballmer Institute will prioritize early detection and prevention of mental health problems in children.
"[We are] changing our child mental health system from one that just focuses on treating the kids that are having the most severe problems, to one that’s focused on thinking about mental health and wellness needs of all children, identifying the most effective interventions to prevent problems from getting worse, and to give children the skills they need to be resilient in the face of stress," McLaughlin said.
This comes as concerns over mental health in children and the rates of mental illness have both reportedly increased nationwide.
A Pew Research Center study released last week showed mental health concerns topped the list of parental concerns about their children, with 40% of parents saying they're extremely or very worried about their child struggling with anxiety or depression.
"Rates of depression among teenagers, suicidal behaviors, and anxiety have been ticking up steadily over the past decade," McLaughlin told KGW. ''That was true before the COVID-19 pandemic, and things further exacerbated during the pandemic."
McLaughlin said the current system is designed to respond to '5-alarm fires' for children with severe mental illness concerns, but the Ballmer Institute plans to provide widespread access to early support services as a template for the rest of the country.
"If child behavioral health specialists become embedded in schools throughout an entire city — regardless of a family's income or their health insurance or ability to pay for services — their child is going to have access to a trained professional who’s there to deliver evidence-based behavioral health interventions," McLaughlin said.
In a release, University of Oregon interim president Patrick Phillips said the university is committed to partner with communities to make a difference across the state.
"I have been at the University of Oregon for 22 years and have been involved in many things. The university has never been more engaged and out in the world than we are with the Ballmer Institute," Phillips said. "It’s a great challenge and a great opportunity and we’re very excited to have Katie join us and help us move this vision forward."
McLaughlin also received praise from Janet Woodruff-Borden, acting provost and executive vice president for the University of Oregon, in the university's release.
"Katie (McLaughlin) is a generational scholar," said Woodruff-Borden. "She is one of the most consequential and influential psychologists working in the area of child behavioral health right now."
The Ballmer Institute was funded by a $425 million gift from Steve and Connie Ballmer. Steve Ballmer previously worked as the CEO of Microsoft, with Connie Ballmer directing the couple's philanthropic giving.
McLaughlin said the Ballmer Institute intends to serve as an example of how to reform child mental healthcare across the country.
"The goal here is really to bring these services to families in the pacific northwest and then think about how can we use this model as a template for improving the child mental health system nationally," McLaughlin said.