The Road to Becoming the First Latina APA President-Elect

As the first Latina president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), NewYork-Presbyterian psychiatrist Dr. Maria Oquendo shares her story about what led to this accomplishment.


by Maria A. Oquendo, MD

Where I Come From

I was born in Santiago de Compostela, a beautiful medieval city in northwestern Spain, where my father was studying medicine. I was just a baby when my parents moved to the United States. After graduating from medical school, my father was hired to be a doctor for the United States Air Force. My passion for science and biology remained constant as we moved from base to base throughout my childhood. When it came time to choose a career, I knew I wanted to do something where I could make an immediate difference for people, so I enrolled into medical school. While attending Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, I fell in love with psychiatry. The possibility of getting to know patients in depth and to make a difference in their lives held tremendous appeal. In psychiatry, it was possible then and even more so nowadays to follow a thorough, comprehensive model of medicine and form close therapeutic alliances with patients and families.

27 Years of Psychiatry

For the past 27 years, I have devoted my time to caring for severely ill, often suicidal patients. After graduating from medical school, I trained in psychiatry at the Payne Whitney Clinic at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell in New York, and joined the faculty at Columbia upon graduation in 1988. For the first eight years of my career, I worked as a community psychiatrist on an inpatient unit, teaching second-year residents how to take care of acutely psychotic patients. Being able to serve the community while educating and mentoring was thrilling, and it connected well with my interest in cross-cultural psychiatry, now considered part of global mental health. Throughout my career, I have been a member of the APA, the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, and the Association of Women Psychiatrists, among many other wonderful organizations.

Research

In the mid-1990s, I decided to enhance my academic work with research initiatives and began working on mood disorders and suicidal behavior, with a focus on psychopharmacology and neurobiology. Research was exciting and rewarding, and as I became a seasoned investigator, I treasured the opportunity to return to my original calling: education and mentoring. I became Vice Chair for Education and Psychiatry Training Director for the Columbia University Psychiatry Residency Training Program at Columbia University and New York State Psychiatric Institute in 2007. Teaching, guiding and supporting trainees as they develop and grow as psychiatrists continues to be immensely rewarding. Whether they want to be community psychiatrists, clinicians, psychoanalysts or researchers, I always encourage them to pursue excellence.

Spending the afternoon with some terrific postgraduate (PGY2) psychiatry residents

Currently, I’m the principal investigator on several projects funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): a prospective study of suicidal behavior in patients with affective disorders, a training grant for translational neuroscience and two training grants in global mental health. I’m also a co-investigator on four other NIMH-funded research studies examining the neurobiology of suicidal behavior and mood disorders.

Spreading Awareness and Services Globally

My passion for global health has been consistent over the years — it’s also in my blood as I’m half-Puerto Rican and half-Spanish. According to the World Health Organization, mental and substance abuse disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide.

Right now, there are only eight Mozambican psychiatrists and three Cuban psychiatrists for the entire country of Mozambique. With a grant from the NIMH, my colleagues from New York State Psychiatric Institute/Columbia University and I are developing and implementing a research training program in Mozambique in partnership with the Universidade Federal do Sao Paulo (UNIFESP) in Brazil. We are training Mozambican mentors and fellows to deliver interventions and how to scale up existing effective interventions. In addition, we are mentoring them with the goal of examining how evidence-based mental health prevention, assessment and treatment interventions can be translated for utilization in specific low-resource settings.

Visiting Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique. Left to Right: Dr. Jair Mari, Dr. Milton Wainberg, Vice-Minister of Health Saide, Dr. Lidia Gouveia, Dr. Maria Oquendo, Ms. Palmira Santos, and Dr. Adam Karpati at the Ministry of Health

Mental Health and the Latino Community

While I’m excited to be the first Latina APA president-elect, I also understand the responsibility to shine a light on mental health the Latino community. For instance, like many other cultures, we also do not talk enough about child abuse, domestic violence or suicide. There are many wonderful things about our cultures that are protective such as the importance of family and extended kinships. These are important sources of both enjoyment and support.

It’s All About Balance

My wonderful family

As a working mom, I am no stranger to the demands of striking a balance between home life and work. I have spent many hours talking with young psychiatrists, especially women, about strategies to make it work. Ultimately, we are happiest when we can derive satisfaction in both our personal and our professional lives. I love to travel and I am a bit of a foodie. Almost every morning, I go for a walk along the beautiful Hudson River. It is a stupendous way to exercise and enjoy the dawn hours.

Looking Forward

I am honored to have had the opportunity to bring my background and experiences to bear at a national level as the APA president-elect. As the first APA Latina president-elect, I hope that I can be helpful to women of all backgrounds who are interested in furthering their careers while maintaining strong relationships with their spouses and children.

I’m looking forward to attending this year’s APA annual meeting and my term in May 2016.


Maria A. Oquendo, MD is Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University, Vice Chair for Education, Director of Residency Training at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Her areas of expertise include the diagnosis, pharmacologic treatment and neurobiology of Bipolar Disorder and Major Depression, with a special focus on suicidal behavior as well as cross-cultural psychiatry. Dr. Oquendo graduated summa cum laude from Tufts University in 1980 and received her MD from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1984.