Faculty Bulletin Board

Researcher wins international award for improving mental health in underserved communities

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Dr. Kenneth Wells
UCLA

Dr. Kenneth Wells

Dr. Kenneth Wells, the David Weil Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, is the recipient of the 2018 Rhoda and Bernard Sarnat International Prize in Mental Health, given by the National Academy of Medicine.

The honor salutes decades of work that has focused on improving mental health by clarifying the importance of behavioral health, identifying gaps in quality and access to care and improving the quality of mental health services, especially in primary care settings. In recent years, Wells has focused on creating innovative approaches to improving mental health care through partnerships across communities.

Wells, who is also a professor of health policy and management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and director of the Center or Health Services and Society at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, was recognized for his leadership in developing and evaluating new models for the delivery of services and community partnership in mental health, with a major focus on under-resourced communities.

Wells’ efforts helped establish the field of quality of care and medical outcomes assessment in psychiatry and mental health. His work on RAND’s Health Insurance Experiment, for example, described the impact of how variations in insurance coverage could influence the cost of mental health services and quality of life. Wells also developed Partners in Care, a research study that demonstrated that improving the quality of depression treatment in primary care settings made a positive impact across ethnic groups, medical outcomes and employment status, among other benefits.

Wells received several national and international awards for a research initiative that was one of the first studies to demonstrate how coalitions and alternative, community-based models can favorably impact the health of minority populations. These models have been adapted to help with mental health care in the aftermath of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

“Through his pioneering, innovative work, Dr. Wells helped establish mental health services research on equal footing with physical health research, helping overcome the stigma of mental illness within policy and practice,” said Victor Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine. “He gave us knowledge and commitment to make a difference in the lives of people with mental health conditions, especially those with historical disparities in access to mental health services.  He is most deserving of this important recognition.”

The award, which includes a medal and a $20,000 prize, is to be presented at the academy’s annual meeting on Oct. 15 in Washington, D.C.

Since 1992, the Sarnat Prize has recognized individuals or groups that have demonstrated outstanding achievement in improving mental health, through fields such as neuroscience, psychology, social work, nursing, psychiatry and advocacy. The award is supported by an endowment created by Rhoda and Bernard Sarnat of Los Angeles. Rhoda Sarnat is a licensed clinical social worker, and Bernard Sarnat is a plastic and reconstructive surgeon and researcher.

Wells is the sole recipient of the 2018 Sarnat Prize, whereas in other years multiple recipients have been named. The most recent Sarnat Prize recipient from UCLA was the late Dr. Daniel Freedman, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology, who received the inaugural award in 1992.

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