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Early Career Psychologist Spotlight

SoAP Box: 
Early Career Psychologist Spotlight

Summer 2021

Melissa Pielech, PhD

In this issue, please meet Melissa Pielech, one of our amazing ECP Members! Read below to learn more about research, clinical, and advocacy interests as well as more about her background and interest in addiction psychology.

Where do you work and in what capacity?

I am a pediatric psychologist and clinical researcher. Currently, I am a post-doctoral research fellow at the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies in the School of Public Health at Brown University, funded by a F32 award from NIDA. I also provide clinical services to adolescents with substance use disorders and their families at Bradley Hospital’s Vista program.

Where did you do your training?

I received my PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of New Mexico and completed clinical internship/residency in Pediatric Psychology at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University. Prior to graduate work in clinical psychology, I also earned a Master’s in Expressive Arts Therapy and Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Lesley University. After my Master’s (and before pursuing a PhD) I worked as a research assistant at Boston Children’s Hospital in the Biobehavioral Pediatric Pain lab- I consider this job a key part of my training because it was during this experience that I discovered my passion for clinical research and pediatric psychology, especially working with youth with chronic and persistent pain.

What are your research interests?

Broadly, I am interested in researching how to effectively assess and treat co-morbid pediatric pain and substance use, family-based treatment approaches, interdisciplinary pain rehabilitation, and implementation science. Thus, my current research focuses on intervention development and implementation to co-treat adolescent substance use and pain in integrated care clinics, specifically dental and oral surgery settings, as well as identifying and addressing barriers to increasing family involvement in adolescent and young adult opioid use disorder treatment. I also have some ongoing work related to my master’s thesis research, which involved development, implementation, and feasibility testing of a parent art therapy group intervention for caregivers of youth undergoing intensive interdisciplinary pain rehabilitation.

What are your clinical interests?

I love working with parents, families, and adolescents- especially in the context of complex medical conditions and substance use. I especially enjoy working in intensive treatment settings (e.g., partial programs, IOPs) with a large interdisciplinary team, such as delivering interdisciplinary pain rehabilitation or in the Vista IOP for teens with co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders, where I currently work. In these settings, I appreciate the depth of relationships that you can build with patients and their families (due to seeing them multiple times a week), the opportunity to include parents and caregivers in treatment, and seeing patients make progress towards increased functioning and increased engagement in valued activities when receiving the right level of care and support. I really value doing clinical work and am committed to continuing to do clinical work throughout my research career.

What are your policy/advocacy interests?

Recently, I have been working to learn more about the process of disseminating research findings to policy makers and how to design and utilize research to influence policy-level change. I still have a lot to learn, but as part of my F32 award, I collected qualitative and quantitative data assessing barriers and facilitators to implementing family-based treatment approaches in adolescent and young adult opioid use disorder treatment from key informants, including front-line treatment providers, clinic leaders, opioid-related policy makers, and patient advocates in Rhode Island. Findings are being synthesized into an integrative summary and strategic blueprint that details specific policy-related actions related to increasing family involvement for adolescents and young adults in community opioid use disorder treatment settings. Doing this formative research has helped me to get more connected with policy and advocacy related-efforts already happening in the state, such as becoming a member of Rhode Island’s Family Task Force, a branch of the Governor’s Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force. The Family Task Force is comprised of family members affected by the opioid epidemic, clinicians, and policy makers who are invested in promoting family-based prevention and outreach initiatives.

How did you become interested in addictive behaviors?

My interest in addressing adolescent substance use and pain in integrated care settings emerged from over ten years of clinical and research endeavors with pediatric pain populations examining psychosocial and contextual factors that maintain and exacerbate chronic pain. Attending graduate school in a state with one of the highest rates of drug-induced deaths, primarily from opioids (New Mexico), unexpectedly drew my attention towards a different, largely unexplored aspect of pediatric pain: opioid prescribing to youth and opioid use in the context of pediatric chronic pain. While delivering clinical work on an inpatient pediatric rehabilitation unit, I treated multiple adolescents with opioid dependency, secondary to poorly managed chronic pain, as well as youth who were recovering from traumatic brain injuries related to an overdose. Inquiry into this public health issue became the basis for my dissertation research, in which I utilized medical records data to examine rates of opioid prescriptions to children and adolescents in New Mexico from 2005-2016 (N=42,020) and to quantify longitudinal adverse outcomes. Following this, for post-doctoral work, I sought cross-training in addictive behaviors and treatment at the Brown University Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies to complement my training in pediatric pain and expand my substance use knowledge base beyond opioids.

What motivated you to join the Society on Addiction Psychology (Division 50)?

When I was in graduate school and developing an interest in opioid use research with adolescents, Division 50’s conference, Collaborative Perspectives on Addiction, happened to be in my backyard in Albuquerque. That seemed like a great opportunity to attend and get a feel for the community, which I had heard many folks in my department speak fondly of. I was a bit nervous to attend a conference in a field that was not my primary research area but was pleasantly surprised by the warmth of the community and the trainee-friendly nature of Division 50. So, I guess I would actually say that Division 50 came to me! And I have been a member ever since J.

Any other information that you would like to share about yourself with other SoAP members? (e.g., how do you spend your time outside of work, pet projects)

I am a new puppy mom to a sweet Australian Labradoodle named Violet Clover! That’s been an exciting adventure and adjustment, especially for my cat, RosieQ. Other activities and practices that are nourishing for me are meditation, making art, being outside (mostly beach days, hiking, and camping), jigsaw puzzles, and spending time with my partner, friends, and family.

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