Q&A with Lauren Jessell, PhD ’20

In her final year in our PhD program, Lauren Jessell was lead author of a paper published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment that found that many people receiving treatment in community mental health centers for co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders are prescribed benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines are a class of drug that pose increased risks for dependence, misuse, and overdose among people misusing other drugs. Jessell co-authored the paper with NYU Silver PhD Program Director Dr. Victoria Stanhope, her primary mentor and dissertation chair; PhD Program faculty member Dr. Jennifer Manuel, who also serves on her dissertation committee; and Dr. Pedro Mateu-Gelabert, a longtime mentor and associate professor at CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy.

Why did you choose NYU Silver for your PhD and Dr. Stanhope as your mentor?

At Silver, I felt I’d be able to stay connected with formative mentors I met while working as a research assistant at the National Development and Research Institute. This helped me bridge my previous and current work. I had read Dr. Stanhope’s work prior to coming to NYU as part of advocacy work I had done and I really wanted to work with her. I also felt that Silver would provide me with the chance to forge additional relationships with people whose mental health research aligned with my interests.

Dr. Stanhope’s work in particular and NYU Silver in general have a mental health recovery orientation, which complements my background in substance use harm reduction. Both harm reduction and the mental health recovery movement emphasize collaboration, low threshold care, and self-determination. I think I’ve found my niche in studying services for people with both substance use and mental health challenges, especially services aligning with harm reduction and recovery principles.

What does the mentorship relationship entail?

I meet with Dr. Stanhope regularly to run ideas by her or to work through problems I get stuck on. I’ve also worked since 2016 on her National Institute of Mental Health–funded randomized controlled trial of Person-Centered Care Planning (PCCP). When we first started working together, Dr. Stanhope talked with me about my strengths and the skills that I still needed. I hadn’t had much presentation experience or any teaching experience when I began at NYU and she offered me a lot of support around gaining these skills. I also really wanted to improve my quantitative skills and strengthen my ability to lead author papers. Dr. Stanhope helped me address these gaps and has supported me every step along the way. She built on the earlier mentorship of Dr. Mateu-Gelabert, who spent a great deal of time teaching me how to write a research paper from the ground up and helped me really enjoy the writing process. Both he and Dr. Stanhope have played a big part in helping me launch my career on a positive trajectory.

Is it true that your recent article in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment stems from your work on Dr. Stanhope’s PCCP study?

Yes. I saw the opportunity to use data available through Dr. Stanhope’s study to answer a quite different question about benzodiazepine prescribing in community mental health settings. I’m interested in substance use and the use of prescription drugs, while her study of PCCP is an RCT [randomized controlled trial] examining the implementation and effectiveness of this intervention for people with serious mental illness. Dr. Stanhope generously gave me the freedom to ask questions that I was interested in as part of data collection for her study. Since we were reviewing service users’ medical charts to see if their service plans reflected person-centered care values and principles, I realized we could also look at what medications people were being prescribed and whether they had co-occurring substance use disorders. While our work is different, I think the spirit of it is the same. It’s important to have a mentor who really gets and supports my work—I’m lucky to have that.

Is Dr. Manuel a mentor as well? If so, how did that come to be?

Definitely. Dr. Manuel has been an exceptional mentor as well. I met her through Dr. Stanhope as they were working together on an evaluation study. When I first came to NYU, I didn’t think students were supposed to work with any other faculty members besides their official mentor. But at Silver, you are encouraged to work with different people and to pursue opportunities to become your best self professionally and academically.

I worked with Dr. Manuel on a study examining implementation of the SBIRT model at community mental health organizations serving adolescents. I had met Dr. Manuel in passing but Dr. Stanhope facilitated our formal relationship. That’s another really important part of mentorship—not being territorial. Dr. Stanhope’s position is, “I want you to learn as much as you can from everyone, including from me.”

Now that you are finishing your dissertation and set to graduate soon, what will you do next?

I recently started working as a Senior Research Associate at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. I’m facilitating the surveillance component of a three-year CDC-funded Overdose Data to Action grant. Our goal is to survey 1,000 people who used opioids across New York City with the goal of informing overdose prevention efforts. Long term, I may stick with government work or one day make my way into academia. Social work researchers have skills that are transferable to many settings and, ultimately, I want to be wherever I can make the most impact. In any event, I go forward with a deep appreciation for the knowledge gained and people befriended at NYU.