DOCS Experience Inspires Mental Health Advocate

As an undergraduate student studying human nutrition at the University of Florida, Stefania Prendes-Alvarez accompanied a family friend, a physician on the volunteer faculty at UM, to one of the free health fairs organized by students in the Miller School’s Mitchell Wolfson Sr. Department of Community Service (DOCS). The experience opened her eyes to the vast number of people who lack regular health care.

“It was amazing to witness and it still inspires me,” said Prendes-Alvarez, who grew up in what she describes as a typical, close-knit, hardworking Cuban-American family. “Seeing so many patients in need of care, seeing how much the students did to help them, and seeing the level of gratitude was overwhelming.”

It was at that moment Prendes-Alvarez knew her plan to study medicine was the right one. She had considered the profession back in high school at Our Lady of Lourdes Academy, and her mother, an accountant, and her father, a contractor, encouraged her. The health fair in Little Haiti also convinced her that she should pursue medicine at UM, where even as a freshman, she would have the opportunity to be a part of DOCS.

Now a third-year student who aspires to be a child and adolescent psychiatrist, she is in the process of earning a Master’s in Public Health, and devoting time to “Let’s Talk About it,” an initiative she founded in 2009 with Ana E. Campo, M.D., assistant dean for student affairs and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, to educate middle school students about mental health.

“The aim of the program is to destigmatize mental illnesses,” said Prendes-Alvarez. “I chose to work with adolescents because I believe their emotional well-being is not always attended to as it should be, and I firmly believe we need to start talking much more about these issues.”

The ten-week curriculum, which is funded by the American Psychiatric Foundation, focuses on the most prevalent mental illnesses and healthy coping techniques. Now in its third year, Prendes-Alvarez expanded the project to four classes and involved second-year medical students. According to Campo, questionnaires showed that students gained significantly from the experience.

“One of Stefania’s aims was to equip eighth graders with the knowledge and coping skills necessary to destigmatize these illnesses and prepare them to enter teenage life, when these disorders become more prevalent,” Dr. Campo said. “Stefania’s project illustrates how effectively medical knowledge can be disseminated through a community approach.”

Teacher Thomas Gantt agrees. As manager of the After-School All-Stars program at North Miami Beach’s John F. Kennedy Middle School, he’s seen students warm up to Prendes-Alvarez, an achievement in itself, because “not everyone knows how to deal with children at that level.”

“She makes them feel very comfortable, even with subjects that can be controversial,” Gantt said. “She has a passion for what she does, and it shows.”

Prendes-Alvarez, who added the hyphenated name after her July wedding to her college sweetheart Chris, began her community involvement as soon as she entered the Miller School. In her first year she served as assistant project manager at the San Juan Bosco Clinic, one of two clinics where DOCS assists with patient care. She became project manager during her second year and, in her third year, she became executive director of clinics, in charge of DOCS operations at both San Juan Bosco and Lotus House, a shelter for homeless women and their children in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood.

This academic year she is serving on the DOCS executive board as director of research and quality control. The one-on-one patient experience, however, is what she treasures most.

“I have learned that your approach to the patient is crucial,” Prendes-Alvarez said. “Simple things like remembering their names, asking them how they’re doing, and listening when they want to talk, even if it’s not medically related, can go a long way to make patients trust us and know we have their best interest at heart. There is still so much we have to do to convince people that we are on their side and want health care to be equitable.”

Lessening health care disparities is now a passion of Prendes-Alvarez’s. That’s one of the reasons she’s studying public health. She’s eager to learn more about the variety of needs in health care and, more important, educate herself on how best to help bring relief. She hopes to pursue a residency in psychiatry after earning her M.D. in 2013.

“I had never really thought about psychiatry until I saw my first psychiatry patient at the San Juan Bosco clinic during my first year,” said Prendes-Alvarez. “On that evening I saw how incredibly debilitating emotional angst could be for an individual and the vital role a psychiatrist plays in improving their quality of life. I want to use my medical knowledge, my public health skills and my love of community service, research and psychiatry to create social change about how populations view mental illnesses.”

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