A parent of a patient one time referred to Marcia Slattery as “the child whisperer.”
It was a flattering compliment Slattery received at the time, but she also sees it as part of her job — to connect with kids, encourage them to open up and assist them through difficult transitions, such as an unfamiliar school, a different grade or new classmates.
Slattery, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UW-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health, serves as director of the UW Anxiety Disorders program, which she established 15 years ago. The program helps people of all ages with anxiety, but the Wisconsin native specializes in working with children and adolescents.
“If you really can understand where a kid is at, their age and what’s going on and connect with them at that level, it’s amazing what they will tell me,” she said. “Absolutely amazing. And parents are typically stunned at what this kid has been thinking about and feeling that they had no idea. And so another take-home message I often give to parents is we need to learn better at listening, really listening to kids so that they feel heard.”
Tell me about how you got into psychiatry.
When I first went into medicine, I was not at all planning on going into psychiatry and was leaning more toward internal medicine or a primary care type model. And then when I started doing more of my clinical rotations in medical school, especially after doing my psychiatry rotation at a hospital in Milwaukee, I was really excited to see how psychiatry integrates all of the medical knowledge and biology with the emotional, psychological component of patients. So I could understand how their brain and bodies work, but also how those biological components interfaced with who they were as a person.
And specifically working with children?
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The more that I did the work, it became a passion that I wanted to pursue in just being able to be a voice and an advocate for children’s mental health. There’s such a shortage in child adolescent psychiatry. It requires four years of medical school, four years of general psychiatry and then two years of child psychiatry. In the northern part of Wisconsin, you might not find a psychiatrist for miles. Another piece of what I’m doing is working with pediatrics and primary care up there, helping them identify mental health problems and things they can do in their office.
What do people misunderstand about anxiety?
Anxiety is very secretive. By the time they present to the clinic, they’ve had anxiety for a lengthy period of time and it often comes on very gradually, so it’s not obvious. We sort of get used to it and then it comes in a little bit more and we adjust for that. They’re absorbing more, absorbing more. But at a point the sponge gets saturated and then the runoff is the symptoms that you start to see because they just can’t acclimate anymore. People don’t talk about it. That’s the other interesting piece. People with anxiety are often referred to as silent sufferers. They hold it inside.
How has technology changed children and how you work with them?
To me, it increasingly has the potential of almost like driving a wedge between the child and the relationship bonding with parents and others in their life because they’re so focused on the screens and the electronics. One of the interesting things I’ve seen increasingly over recent years is many kids are coming in with anxiety and it’s being preliminarily diagnosed by others as this person has social anxiety disorder, when in fact they don’t. They’re presenting with anxiety in social situations because they don’t know what to do. They don’t know what to say. They don’t know how to interact with another kid or another adult. And they’ve avoided it many times by looking down at their screen or, you know, spending hours upon hours at home on their electronics and games. It’s really eroding that social fabric. And that is one of the key components I’ve really seen contribute to more anxiety and more stress. We feel less connected, we feel less secure in our relationships and we’re out there alone. I think the saying, “We’ve never been more connected, but we’ve never been more alone,” has some truth to it. We do a tremendous amount of education with parents when they’re coming in about setting limits and monitoring what their kids are on and really making sure they’re putting an effort into in-person activities and time with their kids.
What’s the best part of your job?
It’s very optimistic and a very positive feeling when they leave the office. They feel like, “I got this. I may have anxiety, but I can get rid of it. It’s not who I am as a person.” And that’s what the parents need to hear too. So many times, we paint mental health as being the problem and it’s never going to get better and it’s going to be forever and it’s totally not true. We treat it so you can have a normal life.