Beginning as a teen and continuing through her years at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, Dr. Georgette Constantinou noticed that people – fellow classmates and even older adults– often reached out to her for help in solving their personal problems.
“I wanted to be a pediatrician since the age of 12 but it just seemed like people felt they could confide in me and I began to think that was my calling,” she said.
Thus began a career in pediatric psychology that would span more than 40 years.
When she retires from Akron Children’s on Jan. 31, Dr. Constantinou will leave a legacy in Akron Children’s Division of Pediatric Psychiatry and Psychology, which she joined in 1978 as director of the behavioral pediatric residency training program. She has served as the division’s administrative director since 1999.
In partnership with her team, Dr. Constantinou helped develop keystone programs that touch families seeking help for children with behavioral and mental health concerns. These include Akron Children’s Partial Hospitalization and Intensive Outpatient Programs, the Psychiatric Intake Response Center (PIRC), Behavioral Health Emergency Services, and the recent expansion of the inpatient behavioral health unit. She advocated for the creation of the NeuroDevelopmental Science Center, the Consultation/Liaison Service, and the need to embed pediatric psychologists in clinical programs to help children – and their families – deal with the ongoing difficulties of chronic illnesses such as cancer and diabetes.
Yet, amidst all the program building, she believes her most important contribution has been demonstrating the benefit of having mental health professionals throughout the hospital when much of what they do (supporting families at funerals, for example, or spending hours consulting with other providers) is not billable.
“That is where I believe I have helped,” she said. “I have helped people understand the value of mental health services.”
Responding to the increasing demand for mental and behavioral health services has been an ongoing challenge. Like all children’s hospitals, Akron Children’s could use more fellowship-trained providers, more support staff, more inpatient beds, and more specially-designated exam rooms in the ER.
She has worked closely with Dr. Stephen Cosby, director of the Division of Pediatric Psychiatry and Psychology, and her program directors to find better ways to triage patients, respond to unmet community needs, and make services as seamless and accessible as possible.
“Stephen and I have worked together for 15 years and it’s been a great partnership,” she said. “He is a ‘big picture’ person – envisioning that programs we see work in other places could work here, and I am the ‘details’ person to make it happen and make it fit according to our own needs.”
She is a respected educator – an associate professor at the Northeast Ohio Medical University – and mentor to residents, psychology fellows and division staff.
“One simple statement she has repeated to me throughout these years has been, ‘Always take the high road,’” said Pat Seifert, PIRC director. “I have watched her take the high road on a daily basis and watched this work wonders.”
As she assumed greater and greater administrative duties over the years, Dr. Constantinou never lost her passion for working with children, especially those who have suffered abuse, lived through trauma or struggle with mental illness.
Patients and parents who she helped decades ago frequently reach out to her with visits, letters, and updates about their lives.
“Georgette approaches every decision with what is in the best interest of clients and families served at Akron Children’s and in the community,” said Doug Straight, clinical operations director of Behavioral Health. “She is a fierce advocate for the mental health needs to children at the local, state, national and international levels.”
Treating children who have experienced trauma has been her special interest. She has led countless presentations, served on numerous advisory boards, and led workshops – including in places as far as Belarus and Ukraine – to share this expertise.
On a lighter note, she was an invited expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show, discussing the importance of having children do chores and how it adds value to family life.
Dr. Constantinou, a recipient of Employee Foundation Council’s 2008 Distinguished Service Award, is one of the few employees with longer tenure than CEO Bill Considine and she credits him with allowing her to grow in her role and invest in new programs.
“As the industry changed, as models of reimbursement changed, he was always supportive,” she said. “He always voted for us through thick and thin.”
Despite the addition of one evidence-based program after another, the team continues to strategize new and better ways to deal with the overwhelming demand.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 1 in 5 children has a significant mental health issue and nearly half of teens living with mental illness severe enough to cause significant impairment in their day-to-day lives are not receiving treatment.
One solution is making access more convenient. In recent years, Dr. Constantinou and her team have been working to make mental health services available at Akron Children’s Hospital Pediatrics (ACHP) offices, often by partnering with other community providers. Offering these services in primary care reduces the stigma and studies show parents are 7 times more likely to seek care in this setting.
“Georgette has been amazing in her knowledge and ability to navigate systems within the hospital and the community,” said Dr. Cosby. “When we became co-leaders of the Division of Pediatric Psychiatry and Psychology 15 years ago, we were a relatively small division. About 6 years ago, Georgette and I had a conversation acknowledging that we are no longer a small mom and pop shop. As one of the largest divisions in the department of Pediatrics, we had to think outside of the box to address issues on a larger scale. This led to our current vision of expansion and regionalization.”
In her 4 decades in practice, the very nature of childhood has changed. The new landscape includes the often intense pressure to perform in academics and sports, with lots of juggling among the busy lives of children and parents. On the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, there are more children living in poverty or chaotic homes, often with parents who are dealing with their own mental health concerns or, increasingly, addictions.
When she completed her doctorate at Ohio State University in 1973, there was no Internet and social media, or smartphones, which give young people, already prone to impulsivity, the immense power to make mistakes before vast numbers of “friends” and “followers.”
Today, there is greater awareness of bullying, sexual abuse, depression and anxiety and how traumatic events in childhood, such as the death of a parent or witnessing domestic violence, can have effects on mental and physical health that endure throughout one’s lifetime.
The psychologist works in a special place – alongside but not within the client family – to listen, console and guide while always respecting different cultures and value systems. In pediatrics, it must be remembered that the child is the client, but the child and his/her family will always be intertwined.
“Our goal is always to give children the tools and strategies for coping, no matter what life deals them,” Dr. Constantinou said. “It’s been a privilege to stand with these families.”