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Dr. Deirdre Evans-Cosby

Working to change perceptions of mental illness

As a medical student, Dr. Evans-Cosby considered a number of clinical specialties. She enjoyed family medicine as well as her experiences in obstetrics & gynecology. But the patients that stuck in her mind the most were those she encountered during her psychiatry rotation.

“I felt like I was able to help those patients more. I remember those experiences clearly and it seemed like I was able to make real progress with them,” she said. “Seeing the impact I could make was the turning point in deciding to become a psychiatrist.” Today, Dr. Evans-Cosby is on the Morehouse Healthcare (MHC) staff and serves as an attending physician at Grady Health System in the outpatient community mental health clinic; she is also an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Morehouse School of Medicine.

Early Decision
Even though Dr. Evans-Cosby laughs about being possibly the last person in her medical school class to decide on her field, she notes that she had always wanted to be a doctor. “Since my early teen years, I knew I was going to be a doctor for sure,” she said. “Starting in 7th grade and on through high school, I was really interested in biology.” Helping to care for her great-grandmother also made an impression. Dr. Evans-Cosby said, “She was bed-ridden and was suffering from Alzheimer’s. We kept her at home but had to take her to the doctor frequently. Those experiences probably solidified my decision to pursue a career in medicine.”

Community Engagement
After graduating from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Dr. Evans-Cosby came to Morehouse in 2000 and completed her training in 2004, and joined the School of Medicine faculty the same year. “What attracted me to Morehouse was the abundant opportunity to be engaged with underserved patient populations. I was able to be more involved in community outreach, and have the facilities and support to do it,” she said. “When I was interviewing here, the mission of the school—serving the underserved—was stressed repeatedly. That was a big selling point for me.”

Patient Conditions
While the patients she sees bring a broad range of challenges, Dr. Evans-Cosby observes that the vast majority of her consultations usually involve three conditions. “At MHC, I see a lot of patients with depression and anxiety. At the Grady clinic, I tend to see more cases of schizophrenia.” Dr. Evans-Cosby also serves on an outreach team for the Assertive Community Treatment program (ACT). “The ACT program puts treatment out in the community. Many of our patients who suffer from schizophrenia have difficulty coming to us on a regular basis. After the ACT team helps address their immediate needs, these patients can then go to the Grady outpatient mental health center.”

Dr. Evans-Cosby adds that she has seen a rise in substance abuse in younger populations, as well as patients with depression resulting from financial problems. She said, “I don’t know if these cases are a result of the bad economy, but we are seeing a lot of them.”

Removing the Stigma of Mental Illness
“For the longest time, mental illness was something that hasn’t been addressed in a formal manner in the African-American community,” said Dr. Evans-Cosby. “We don’t talk about it in a truly meaningful way; we just kind of push it to the side. But talking to patients about their conditions is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. I get satisfaction out of letting them know that they aren’t ‘crazy’—that many other people are going through the same thing, and that they can get better with the proper treatment.” She said, “It’s important to meet patients where they are. Not in a physical sense, but where their needs are.”

This approach is mirrored, she notes, in the kind of treatment all MHC physicians provide, and is something that distinguishes MHC from other area practices. She said, “From whatever form of communication that suits you best to whatever type of needs assessment or treatment you require, we try to accommodate patients and make them feel as comfortable as possible.”

Helping Future Physicians Chart Their Course
In addition to helping patients address their illnesses, Dr. Evans-Cosby also greatly enjoys teaching and working with medical students at the School of Medicine. She remembers her experiences at that stage of her training and can easily empathize with current students. “You have smart, capable people with wide-open minds that still need some guidance on what clinical area they can best apply their skills,” she said. “Seeing how I was in medical school, not knowing immediately what I wanted to do, helps me encourage students to get a genuine feel for what specialty they really like. It’s also fulfilling to ensure that those residents who know exactly what they want to do have a solid knowledge base.”

She counts Dr. Gail Mattox, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, as her mentor. “Dr. Mattox made sure I was well-rounded and participated in activities that would help me grow. She provided honest feedback to me on areas where I needed improvement but was always supportive. I strive to provide the same valuable guidance and direction she gave to me to students at the School of Medicine today.”

A Different Way to Relax
While treating mental illness can be demanding, Dr. Evans-Cosby has a unique outlet for stress relief. “I absolutely love rollercoasters,” she said. “It’s a great way to blow off steam. I’m a huge Six Flags person. I enjoy swimming, but rollercoasters are probably my biggest weakness. When I was younger, I could ride all day long. Not so much now, but I never pass up an opportunity.”