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Commencement 2015
Brittain Award winner helps others with health

Through research and community service, Amanda Garcia-Williams has reached out to help others improve their physical and mental health, including extensive work on suicide prevention.

Amanda Garcia-Williams has devoted her academic research and community service to reaching out to help others, from encouraging people to wash their hands to avoid spreading disease to extending a hand to support those experiencing extreme emotional duress.

A doctoral candidate in Laney Graduate School's program in behavioral sciences and health education, Garcia-Williams is the 2015 recipient of the university’s highest student honor, the Marion Luther Brittain Award. The award is presented each year to a graduate who has demonstrated exemplary service to both the university and the greater community without expectation of recognition.

Candidates are required to demonstrate a strong character, meritorious service and a sense of integrity. Garcia-Williams receives the award, which also comes with $5,000, during the central Commencement ceremony on May 11.

Garcia-Williams grew up on a walnut farm in Winters, California. Her parents inspired her to want to improve the lives of others. “They are really kind and generous people,” Garcia-Williams says. “They do things like raise money to help with someone’s medical bills or to get an air-conditioner for someone who can’t afford one. They’re always trying to help people in some way.”

Garcia-Williams came to Emory in 2007 as an MPH student at Rollins School of Public Health. While a student, she also worked at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion. Her master’s thesis examined the perceptions of asking and being asked to perform hand hygiene among health care workers and the general public.

“Hand washing is something so simple but most people don’t realize how important it is to staying healthy, not just in a hospital, but in everyday life,” she says.

A member of her extended family died by suicide before Garcia-Williams entered her PhD program. “It became something I wanted to learn more about,” she says. “I had never thought about suicide as a public health problem, but it is a leading cause of death in the United States.”

Support for suicide prevention

Her PhD adviser, Nadine Kaslow, professor of psychiatry in the School of Medicine, received a campus-wide suicide prevention grant to launch a program called Emory Cares 4 U. Garcia-Williams volunteered to work on many essential aspects of the program, such as assisting in the development of a comprehensive suicide prevention web site:

When Emory’s counseling center took over Emory Cares 4 U, Garcia-Williams continued her close involvement, including volunteering as a QPR Gatekeeper Instructor. QPR is an education program that trains students, faculty and staff about how to recognize the warning signs of suicide and how to refer someone for professional help.

The bottom line, Garcia-Williams says: “If your gut’s telling you something isn’t right, don’t be afraid to ask someone if they need help. You may be able to help them access the resources they need to get out of a dark place.”

For her dissertation, Garcia-Williams researched how college students experience and respond to suicidal peers. “Some students engage in a caregiving role to others in emotional duress,” Garcia-Williams says. “They may provide this support for a long time, because it’s their friend.”

While mental health interventions typically focus on the person in crisis, they should also consider the people supporting them, Garcia-Williams says. “I’m hoping my research will help bring attention to this topic, and lead to ways to get resources to peers helping others, so that they also take better care of themselves.”

Engaged in helping people

The University of Rochester named Garcia-Williams a Virtual Mentoring Network to Enhance Diversity of the Mental Health Research Workforce Scholar. In addition to her work with suicide prevention, she served on academic committees, volunteered to teach yoga classes at a local recreation center, and served as a science fair judge at an elementary school.

Garcia-Williams “is an incredibly bright, driven and intellectually curious scholar who will go on to make a huge impact in public health research and promotion,” wrote Kaslow in a nomination letter for the Brittain Award. “She has consistently demonstrated her passion for suicide prevention, her ability to excel academically, and her commitment to volunteering her time and energy to supporting the mission of Emory University and the wider community.”

Garcia-Williams has been accepted into the 2015 class of the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS), an elite corps of “disease detectives” who investigate outbreaks and other public health crises at the CDC.

While her primary interest remains preventing violence and injury of all kinds, she says she is open to any assignment by the EIS. “It’s my dream job. I know I’ll be happy because I’m passionate about every aspect of public health.”

Even as she prepares to receive her PhD, Garcia-Williams says her greatest lesson remains the generosity of spirit she learned from her parents.

“Everyone can be engaged in helping people, and that’s what sums up public health — trying to help people in some way,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be a huge thing. You just have to try to do something.”

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