By Peggy Reisser
Photos by Brandon Dill
In June, Altha Stewart stood on a Washington, D.C., stage to address a packed house at a black-tie benefit sponsored by actress Taraji P. Henson to raise money for the TV star’s foundation to build mental health awareness in the African American community.
An associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and the first African American president of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), Stewart was a keynote speaker for the “Empire” actress’s star-studded evening.
It’s safe to say, Stewart is comfortable on the national and international stage. After completing her time at the helm of the APA and with a new title of senior associate dean for community health engagement for the UTHSC College of Medicine, Stewart will be working to extend health care to everyone in Shelby County.
It’s really an extension of her work focusing on making sure young people in Memphis and Shelby County have a chance to succeed and thrive.
Advocating for Youth
Born and raised in South Memphis, Stewart graduated from public and parochial schools in the city and was among the first class of women admitted to what is now Christian Brothers University in Memphis. She received her medical degree from Temple University Medical School in Philadelphia and completed her residency at Hahnemann University Hospital there in 1982.
She credits her family with instilling in her a sense of service. Medicine and, in particular, psychiatry gave her the avenue.
She worked in mental health care for two decades in the public and private sector in New York, Philadelphia and Detroit. Each city had its youth and families to serve and save, but when Memphis called, she returned.
Stewart moved back to Memphis in 2002, working first as a psychiatric consultant and then in 2011 as the executive director of the Just Care Family Network, a federally funded program to help young people with mental illness at risk of going into the juvenile justice system. The position solidified the next phase of her career as an advocate for the youth and families of the Bluff City.
After working as the director of the Shelby County System of Care for the Public Defender’s Office, she was hired by UTHSC in 2015 as an associate professor, the chief of social and community psychiatry, and the founding director of a new Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth.
U.S. District Judge Mark Norris—then a state senator deeply involved in trauma-informed juvenile justice issues—connected Stewart and the university. He has been a key collaborator in developing the Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth and in Stewart’s work.
“I would say Dr. Stewart is a force of nature and has been incredibly effective at making the case for early intervention and alternatives to incarceration, because of not only her clinical experience, her pedigree, but her personal experience,” Norris says. “She’s uniquely suited to do this work, as evidenced by her immediate success. And she is working effectively with other organizations that are dedicated to the same work.”
Stewart is a widely recognized expert on public sector and minority issues in mental health care, as well as on the effects of trauma and violence on children. The mission of the center is to reduce the number of young people in the juvenile justice system by addressing the trauma and exposure to violence that contribute to the behavior that lands them there.
The prevention strategy espoused by the center is based on the recognition that adverse childhood experiences—poverty, violence and trauma early in life—foster the behavior that contributes to a cycle of hopelessness and failure that can ultimately end in incarceration. By addressing the root causes of the behavior, recognizing what triggered it and helping children and families to find services that offer solutions, the center seeks to change young lives for better futures.
In Shelby County, the numbers illustrate the need. According to Juvenile Court administrators, 5,300 children were brought to juvenile court on delinquency complaints in 2018, with 926 detained and charged. Of those, 23 were charged with murder, 50 with aggravated robbery and 22 with aggravated assault.
Changes in the local juvenile justice system, including a new Youth Justice and Education Center, aim to reduce those numbers. By creating a trauma-informed culture across the city, working with schools, churches, law enforcement agencies and family service organizations, Stewart’s goal is to avert the need for intervention by juvenile justice authorities.
Moving the Mission Forward
There is progress. The Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth, which started with a $200,000 grant from the Tennessee Legislature, has recently received more than $2 million in federal funding for its work.
In August, UTHSC marked the opening of a new Youth Advocacy Coalition. Located on campus, the coalition is the result of a collaboration between the Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth and the Shelby County Government Division of Community Services.
The coalition will provide support and community-based resources for at-risk and justice-involved youth, ages 12 to 17, and their families by providing trauma-informed screenings, individualized recommendations for referrals to community-based behavioral and trauma-related services, and follow-up. The coalition is voluntary, restraint-free, trauma-informed, family-centered and independent from juvenile court. Referrals may be made by individuals, parents, schools and community members. Here again, the goal of the center is to reduce further contact or avoid contact with the juvenile justice system.
Funded as a pilot project with intent to expand, the coalition will concentrate initially on young people in the Frayser community of Memphis, an area with high need and an established and strong network of community resources ready to collaborate.
“We’re going to focus on the children we believe can be diverted from the system, either through a referral from law enforcement at the point of contact in the community, a referral from a school resource officer, a self-referral from a family member or a community organization that works with children who recognize some of the signs of at-risk behavior in that child,” Stewart told those gathered for the coalition’s opening.
“Our basic job is to protect the hope of others,” she says. “We have to be hopeful they will get better or they won’t be.”