Member of Adelphi University’s 10 Under 10.
New York University/Bellevue Hospital Center Clinical Assistant Professor and Clinical Psychologist in Private Practice“The way I saw current Derner students and faculty interacting with each other was unlike any other program.”
Most people hear “trauma” and think solely about the distressing event that happened. But as an Adelphi student, Linda (Sapanski) Smith ’07, Ph.D. ’12 was drawn to the topic of trauma because of what can come after the disturbing experience. “My interest was less about the trauma itself and more about how people can go through horrific things and come out even better than they were before,” she said.
After talking with her Adelphi psychology professors, Dr. Smith decided she wanted to pursue her Ph.D. after earning her undergraduate degree. Determined to go somewhere other than Adelphi for her doctorate—she wanted a “new experience”—she applied and was accepted to three other doctorate programs. But she fell in love with Derner’s doctoral program in clinical psychology.
“After being accepted to Derner I was invited to a dinner. The way I saw current Derner students and faculty interacting with each other was unlike any other program,” she said. “There was very intelligent conversation that was also personal. People really knew each other and that what I was looking for.”
As a doctoral student, she continued to pursue the area that interested her most. “As a psychologist, you will end up working with trauma regardless. I wanted to understand it more,” she said. “Professor Kate Szymanski and I knew each other from my undergraduate years. She was very open to me exploring trauma and going down whatever path I wanted with it.”
Dr. Smith was chosen for an externship at NYU/Bellevue. “Before fully deciding on a career in trauma, I wanted to find the hardest place to work to see if this was what I really wanted to do.”
For this externship experience she worked at two sites. The first was at the World Trade Center Clinical Center of Excellence, a government funded program that offered anyone involved in the rescue, recovery and cleanup after 9/11 medical and psychological services. “I was working there eight years after September 11, and there was still pretty significant PTSD.”
The second site was the Program for Survivors of Torture. “It was unlike anything I’d ever done,” said Dr. Smith, who worked with refugees who were seeking asylum in the United States because they were being persecuted in their native countries for political, religious, cultural, or ethnic reasons. She provided trauma-focused individual therapy and group psychotherapy.
“These individuals were survivors of physical and psychological torture or war trauma,” she said. “To see them get better, and they did, was powerful. These people had been through so much but were able to find happiness,” she said. “It was incredibly intense, but probably the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.”
After completing her externship, she applied to the Yale University School of Medicine Child Study Center for her internship. Yale’s program was incredibly selective, with its Trauma Clinic for Children taking on only one fellow. “This was the site I wanted more than anything,” she said. She was the trauma fellow Yale chose.
In this role, she worked with Yale-New Haven’s Child Development-Community Policing Program. “Mental health clinicians rode along in police cars and responded to the scene when a child was a victim of or witness to potentially traumatic events such as domestic violence, a shooting, or a horrific car accident.” Dr. Smith was there to do in person treatment or help the police talk to the kids affected, with the goal of preventing the children’s development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Today, as a clinical assistant professor at NYU School of Medicine in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Dr. Smith works in secure juvenile detention centers in New York City. “We are helping members of the mental health staff understand what the kids in these jails might have been through. And we are teaching them how to run trauma focused skill groups to help these kids develop skills that can help mitigate some of the aversive effects of trauma,” she said. “We’re trying to create a trauma informed culture,” she said.
In December 2013, in addition to maintaining her role at NYU/Bellevue, she established a private practice. “It’s a good balance for me,” she said. “At NYU/Bellevue I’m not doing therapy with kids, I’m working with the people who are hands-on with them. I missed the patient contact way too much. And I need it, especially at this point in my career. I’m still learning.”
Where does Dr. Smith see herself in the future? “Sometimes I play with the idea of having my own center; defining what good, affordable mental health services for children and families on Long Island could look like.”
But Dr. Smith says that’s way down the line. Right now, she is enjoying where she is. “I’m loving having a private practice,” she says. “My favorite part of my work is the one-on-one I have with families here.”