What is your life’s purpose?
My purpose is to improve the mental health of children, adolescents, young adults and their families through education and direct clinical care.
How are you living your purpose?
I live my purpose by developing public health education programs, teaching students, supervising physicians in training, and working directly with patients.
At the NYU College of Arts & Science, I have developed one of the nation’s largest child and adolescent psychology programs (Child & Adolescent Mental Health Studies, or CAMS), which currently incorporates 47 courses for undergraduates. Within CAMS, I also direct a series of health promotion studies focused on improving the sleep and resilience of transitional age youth. At the NYU School of Medicine, I supervise the training of 20 child and adolescent psychiatrists each year, providing direct instruction and clinical supervision.
I also write a good deal about sleep, health education, and risk and resilience. My most recent book, Born to Be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Help Keep Them Safe, is written for the general public and distills all that I’ve learned throughout my career about why adolescents and young adults take risks and the evidence-based tools that parents, teachers, and society at large can use to prevent the incredible amount of illness and injury that result from risky behavior.
How did you find your purpose?
I had intended to be a physician from a very young age, but when I got to college, I found that I really disliked the pre-med courses (and most of the pre-med students too!). These classes were like a “tax” you have to pay to get yourself into medical school, to show that you can memorize vast amounts of science and apply it. Undoubtedly, these are important things, but they felt so removed from the humanity of working in healthcare and helping those who are unwell. So, even though I finished those courses successfully, I decided after college to get a graduate degree in public health and work in the field for a while.
It was during those seven years after college and before I went to med school that I learned about the importance and value of health education. Early on, I worked in HIV/AIDS education and program development; I later worked in occupational safety and health, developing training programs and educational materials for workers at Superfund hazardous waste sites all over the U.S. and Mexico. Working in public health gave me a much broader perspective on healthcare in general. When I finally chose my residency specialty, it was super easy to select child and adolescent psychiatry because there is so much misinformation and stigma around mental health and children are our most vulnerable population—where else could I meld my interests in healthcare and education in a more productive and stimulating way?
What advice do you have for purpose seekers?
I’m called upon all of the time to meet with college, graduate, and medical students, in addition to medical residents who are seeking their purpose. My best advice is to take your time and keep exploring the world before you make the big decisions. The average age at which students enter medical school in the U.S. is now 25. I think that’s terrific—taking your time to not only go to college but also to work for a bit afterwards and follow an alternative passion (or a few!) is a great way to expand your mind. There’s even research showing that the more we explore during our adolescence and early adulthood, the better the quality of the brain tissue growth during those years, which really amounts to making us more flexible adults.
My purpose was to be a physician, but over time what I’ve become is both a clinician and a public health educator. I don’t think I would have found myself in that way had I not given myself the time to explore before settling down into medicine. And remember, nothing can be undone—so you may start in one field and over time, meld your interests into something altogether new.
What resources do you recommend?
That’s a tough question because there’s no single source to help people find their passion. I typically suggest that people cast a wide net when trying to discover what makes their socks go up and down. My wife, Alice Jankell, is a theatre director. She turns me onto all sorts of traditional and nontraditional theatre; and my parents took me to a lot of museums growing up, in addition to spending a lot of time hiking and camping in the woods.
I think that constant exposure to new and diverse offerings informs our work and our passions. I have played guitar for 40 years, and I’ll never stop. That too informs how I see the world and even what I incorporate into my work. I’m always listening to new music and I still keep two guitars in my office so that I’m never far from that sort of inspiration. Even reading the newspaper really matters—the longer you live and read the paper, the more you know what’s going on in our world, and that too informs how we find and constantly refine ourselves.
Connect with Dr. Jess Shatkin
Book: Born to Be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Help Keep Them Safe
Nationally recognized child and adolescent psychiatrist Jess P. Shatkin, M.D., M.P.H., is one of the country’s foremost voices in child and adolescent mental health and the author of Born to Be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Help Keep Them Safe. He serves as Vice Chair for Education at the Child Study Center and Professor of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and Pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine. He has been featured in top print, radio, TV, and Internet outlets, including the New York Times, Good Morning America, Parade, New York Magazine, Health Day, CBS Evening News, New York Daily News, Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. In addition, for the past eight years Dr. Shatkin has been the host of “About Our Kids,” a two-hour call-in radio show broadcast live on SiriusXM’s Doctor Radio. He lives in New York City with his wife and two teenage children.