Full of beauty and strength
Sarah Vinson, M.D. ’07, works to strengthen underserved communities through mental health treatment
April 14, 2018 — When Dr. Sarah Vinson give talks at conferences and meetings around the nation, she begins by describing herself.
“I’m a dark-skinned black woman living in a racist, shadist, sexist society,” she says. “I start my presentations that way because the lenses through which we see ourselves and others are important. We all have them.”
Vinson has devoted her professional career to expanding and strengthening the lens through which minority communities see themselves. She achieves this through focusing on the intersection between the African-American experience and mental health. From the private practice she founded in Atlanta to her work with the Department of Juvenile Justice, Vinson teases apart the socioeconomic and political factors that negatively affect the self-perceptions and mental health of minority populations, with the goal of removing the stigma around receiving treatment.
“Our biggest challenge is understanding all the things outside of medicine that make people sick,” says Vinson. “I deal with failures of the housing, education and criminal justice systems and how those manifest in distress, especially in children.”
As the founder of the Atlanta-based practice Lorio Psych Group, Vinson works as a triple board-certified child and adolescent, adult and forensic psychiatrist. She also works with the Department of Juvenile Justice as a regional youth detention center psychiatrist, caring for incarcerated youth. Though her schedule doesn’t allot much free time, she doesn’t complain.
“It’s a passion so it doesn’t feel like work. You don’t win every case, but when you do, it’s a big win for the patient and everyone in that person’s social circle,” she says. “My work keeps me inspired and grounded. This is where I’ve intentionally placed myself as a clinician.”
Vinson’s work is having an enormous impact in and beyond her community and within the field of psychiatry, and the University of Florida recently recognized her for that impact. She was named a 2018 Outstanding Young Alumnus and honored during an April 14 ceremony held in Gainesville.
In addition to her clinical work, Vinson serves as an assistant professor in psychiatry and pediatrics at Morehouse School of Medicine and adjunct faculty at Emory University School of Medicine. She’s also the president of the Georgia Council on Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, works on the communications council of the American Psychiatric Association and often presents at national conferences for the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, among others.
Devoted to highlighting the experiences of minority communities, Vinson maintains an online community through the website OurselvesBlack.com. As the senior editor of the site, Vinson oversees the journal articles, videos, photo essays and field notes covering topics like the impact of gentrification on the mental health of displaced individuals.
“The website is helping push the boundaries of how people view mental health — to get people to talk about its broad applicability, to educate and to combat the stigma,” she says. “We’re also intentional about painting a picture of a black community full of beauty and strength to counter the prevailing narrative that, too often, is not helpful to black mental well-being.”
Vinson says people didn’t speak about mental health in the small northwest Florida town where she was raised. After moving to Gainesville to attend UF, she began learning the language surrounding psychiatry and made connections within her own history.
“When (former UF psychiatry chair) Mark Gold, M.D. ’75, gave a lecture on the neurobiology of addiction, it helped me understand why people I knew and loved acted differently under different circumstances,” she says. “I realized it didn’t always have to end up the same way for those people.”
Vinson credits Gold, along with Donna Parker, M.D. ’90, and Richard Christensen, M.D., for not only teaching her about medicine, but teaching her to believe in herself. Their encouragement paid off, and when selected as one of UF’s 2018 Outstanding Young Alumnus, she was humbled by the honor.
“I really struggled my first semester of medical school. I was wondering, ‘am I cut out to be a physician?’ There were faculty here who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” she says. “To go from someone questioning whether they belong here to receiving the Outstanding Young Alumnus Award reinforces the profound sense of gratitude I have for the faculty at UF.”
Vinson graduated from the UF College of Medicine in 2007 after being admitted through the Medical Honors Program. While at UF, she served as president of the Student National Medical Association and the Medical College Council. She went on to complete a residency in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and fellowships in both child and adolescent psychiatry and forensic psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine. While a resident at Harvard, Vinson began to focus on the social and political factors that contribute to mental illness, particularly in minority populations.
“I saw these social justice issues of criminalizing mental illness along racial lines. On a population level, black families have the stress of racism, higher incidence of trauma and greater exposure to more negative social determinants of health,” she says. “As people in a marginalized minority group, you have less room for error.”
Vinson soon realized she had the desire and the ability to be part of the solution.
“There’s a reluctance to seek care in these communities. We need ambassadors who can understand their concerns and share the broad applicability of mental health and wellness,” she says.
Though her life centers around caring for others, Vinson says self-care is a priority for maintaining her drive and work ethic. From spending time with family and friends to resting in a hammock staring at the tree tops, she takes the time to ready herself for the next endeavor.
“I’m very proactive about self-care,” she says. “It’s about having a healthy humility and paying attention to the progress you have made. I focus my energy on what’s in my control.”
When Vinson reflects on her career thus far and the projects she will take on in the future, she says she feels grateful for the opportunities she’s been given to follow her true passion.
“To have this platform given my background is not something I take for granted,” she says. “I am in a position of privilege, and I’m using that to educate others. That’s a reward.”