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Student Q&A: María José Luna, Clinical Psychology PhD Program

María José Luna

María José Luna, student in the Clinical Psychology PhD Program, studies the mental health needs and outcomes of youth in the justice system.

Read a Q&A with María José Luna below. 

Where is your hometown?

I was born in Quito, Ecuador. When I was 6 years old, my family and I moved to Boston, Mass. Because I was raised in these two cities, I’m always missing the mountains and the ocean now that I live in Chicago. Even though Chicago’s geography is a bit different, I am starting to call this city my home, too!

What are your research interests?

I am interested in health inequities in mental health and mental health service use. I’m passionate about investigating questions such as: What individual, social, and systemic factors that contribute to inequities?  What factors contribute to resilience and facilitate mental health service use? How can we leverage this information to improve our service systems and public health policies?

What exciting projects are you working on?

My current project uses data from the Northwestern Juvenile Project, a longitudinal study of the mental health needs and outcomes of 1,829 youth who were arrested and detained in the juvenile justice system in Chicago. We re-interviewed participants up to 13 times over the next 16 years after detention. At each follow up, we conducted diagnostic clinical interviews and obtained detailed information on mental health service use. Our prior studies demonstrated that mental health disorders are prevalent and persistent among those involved in the justice system. But, do those who need services receive them?

I am examining the patterns of mental health service use among participants with mental health disorders as they aged, up to 16 years after detention (median age 32 years). Results are astonishing — fewer than 20% of participants with a disorder received services as they aged. Black participants, especially Black males, were the least likely to receive services compared with Hispanic/Latinx and White participants. The type of disorder impacted service use: participants with substance use or disruptive behavior disorders — the most common disorders in criminal justice populations — were less likely to receive services than those with mood and anxiety disorders.

Our next step is to use a mixed-methods approach to integrate our quantitative data with new qualitative data to examine the individual, social, and systemic factors that contribute to these inequities.

What attracted you to your program?

For my graduate education, I was looking for a program that could provide rigorous scientific and clinical training to gain the necessary skills to fulfill my professional goal of becoming a clinical psychologist.  My experiences in the clinical psychology program, particularly those with the Northwestern Juvenile Project and clinical externships, have exceeded my expectations!

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

The best experience so far has been growing professional and social networks throughout Feinberg.  I enjoy learning from colleagues and mentors across Feinberg’s multidisciplinary communities. Shout out to my PhD cohort and to members of the Health Disparities and Public Policy Program, whose support has been critical to my progress.

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg?

In my experience, the faculty at Feinberg are welcoming, highly driven, and collaborative. I admire the adaptability and flexibility they demonstrate during stressful situations, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

What do you do in your free time?

I love jigsaw puzzles! My parents told me that I’ve been doing jigsaw puzzles since I was 2 years old.  I also enjoy taking long walks with my dog to explore the parks throughout Chicago. I took up boxing when I started graduate school, and I’m looking forward to starting again after the pandemic.

What are you plans for after graduation?

The very first thing I will do is to go home to visit my family in Ecuador (and have some fresh choclo con queso y ají). After? I plan to start a postdoctoral fellowship at an academic medical center. Ultimately, I hope to facilitate more collaborations between community mental health and academic settings.