Family Science Impact: Addressing Mental Health Needs Through Prevention & Intervention
Family Science Impact highlights how NCFR members are making a difference through their Family Science career and showcases their career journeys. See more about the many careers and professions of Family Science.
Name: Alexander Chan, Ph.D., LMFT
Current Job Titles:
–Extension Specialist, University of Maryland Extension
–Marriage and Family Therapist, The Sibley Group DC
Tell us a bit about your current work and why it’s important.
In my role as an extension specialist, I develop and implement programs for the community related to mental health issues. I learn from community stakeholders what the population around them is asking for or needs, then I think about the kinds of public educational programs I could create to meet that need: who to involve, whether to work with other extension areas (such as agriculture or 4-H youth development), what materials we can generate, and more. The work is always research-based.
My extension role can address many topics. During the COVID-19 pandemic, common topics have included grief and loss, family communication, and general stress management. Much of my work recently has been around mental health needs in the farming community. We’ve also created programs that address mental health stigma, including showing individuals how they can overcome their own barriers to seeking help.
Extension represents the prevention side of my work, whereas marriage and family therapy is intervention. I like that I can occupy both roles — my extension work is wide-reaching and provides skills to prevent additional mental health challenges, while as a therapist I work with clients on a more personal basis to help them overcome the specific issues they’re facing. The roles also feed into one another. I may utilize an educational intervention I developed with my therapy clients, and I may also translate a lesson from clinical practice into something digestible via a public educational program.
What was your path to your current role? What shaped or influenced that path?
My original plan was to get a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy and work as a clinician. I learned early in graduate school about extension and thought it was interesting, and I was convinced by faculty to stay for the Human Development and Family Science (HDFS) Ph.D. program.
It was the right choice, because I determined that I didn’t want to do therapy full time. In the Ph.D. program I was able to explore different academic paths, working in a research lab, teaching undergraduate courses, and doing extension work. The extension work was my final experience and was ultimately the best fit for me. I liked delivering programs in the community backed by the science I had studied, and I preferred applied research to basic research.
I was hired as a 4-H youth development educator with University of Maryland Extension, and I had planned to stay in that role. But then my current mental health specialist role was created early in the pandemic, and it was a dream job for me — my specific expertise combined with outreach and extension work. I couldn’t say no; I applied and got the job.
All the while, I’ve maintained my clinical licensure for marriage and family therapy and have continued to see clients.
While the path to extension was winding, I’m very happy about where I’ve ended up. It’s such a specific match to my personality, interests, and the skills I developed in graduate school.
How do you use Family Science knowledge or skills in your current work?
Family Science is critical to being a marriage and family therapist. You’re drawing on knowledge about families and the stressors they face, and how to look at things from a systems perspective. Other clinicians may have that lens, but not to the extent of someone trained in Family Science; that makes me valuable to my therapy colleagues.
In extension and education pertaining to mental health, people often talk about individual skill-building. My HDFS background taught me to think about multiple ecological levels — individual, family, and community. Our HDFS courses drew from many disciplines, and that integrative perspective has helped me think beyond my mental health expertise and be open to collaborations.
For example, recently I presented a workshop to a group of farmers about family communication and estate planning for farm succession, in collaboration with a legal specialist in agricultural resource economics. I started with a primer about bringing up these conversations effectively, and my collaborator presented the complex legal issues. That integration is really helpful.
What is most rewarding or makes you proudest about the impact of your work?
In extension, it takes a long time to build a foundational network of community partners. What makes me proud is when, over time, people remember and call on you because you’re a trustworthy, impartial source of good information that enhances their lives. And you’re in extension, so it’s free or very cheap. You’re reliable, accessible, and approachable.
A good example is that I’ve presented numerous times to medical staff through a program addressing stress and burnout in the medical community. I started with the grief topic, and because of the response, they’ve continued to invite me back. I’m able to get directly to the people who need the information, and I’m also indirectly helping the patients they serve.
In therapy, the relationship-building component is also rewarding. Sometimes it’s not a specific intervention that creates the greatest change, but the long-term development of a safe relationship where someone can explore and develop their own ways of managing problems.
What do you wish you would have known along your education or career path?
While I wish I had learned about extension earlier, having experiences in other areas ultimately made me stronger. I’ve learned that I needed to experience things and that it’s okay to learn by doing. You don’t have to be on a particular timeline. While there is pressure to finish your degree in a certain amount of time — and I wouldn’t suggest languishing for years — it’s okay to need more time to explore.
What do you want the world to know about your work, or about Family Science?
Family Science generates unbiased information because it’s based on decades of observation. People should trust the knowledge that Family Science researchers generate and the practice work done by people like family therapists and extension professionals.
Sometimes people want to assert that their instinctive knowledge about families is superior to the decades of work of Family Scientists. I want the world to know that many Family Scientists spend their whole lives looking closely at family issues. Family Scientists are scientists with heart, and their goal is to create healthy, thriving families. Their work, focusing on relationships and family systems in an integrative way, leads to more nuanced and complete views of issues that affect families in society.