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Minding the Minds

Sachiko Kuwabara

Alum Sachiko Kuwabara addresses mental health needs of CDC staff fighting Ebola.


Psychiatric epidemiologist Sachiko Kuwabara, PhD ’12, is involved with an overlooked facet of the Ebola response in West Africa: the mental well-being of health workers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is relying on her expertise to help develop support services that meet the psychological needs of agency staff on the frontline of the Ebola response.

In February 2015, Kuwabara was named deputy chief of the Deployment Risk Mitigation Unit (DRMU)—a new team that oversees staff health, safety and well-being every step of the way: before deployment, in Ebola hot zones and after returning home. Improving the human experience is at the core of every policy and reference material the unit develops.

“I am loving every second of this new role,” says Kuwabara. “The work of DRMU couldn’t be better suited for my skill set.”

July 2015 marked the one-year anniversary of the CDC's emergency response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. More than 1,200 employees, many serving more than one tour of duty, have been deployed to Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia—the largest outbreak response in the agency’s history. The assignment demands mental and physical resilience, and coping strategies to deal with stress and stigma. One way the DRMU has responded to feedback from deployed staff is by building stronger social support networks.

Pre-deployment Q&A sessions with experienced employees help prepare colleagues for what to expect in West Africa. Safety officers accompany staff in the field. Groups who have recently returned are invited to casual events where they can talk about their experiences with others who can relate to the intensity of the work.  

“We want staff to maintain the friendships they gained while responding to the epidemic,” Kuwabara says.

She learned firsthand the value of social support networks as a doctoral student in Mental Health. While serving as technical advisor to the International Medical Corps-Jordan, she investigated how such networks helped displaced families adapt in conflict settings.

“I’ve always been passionate about global health, and I seek out any opportunity I can to work with international efforts,” says Kuwabara.

Holding a leadership role in CDC’s Ebola response effort has been “especially rewarding” says Kuwabara, who envisions a future where mental health and well-being are always on the deployment agenda.

—Salma Warshanna-Sparklin

Learn More About the PhD in Psychiatric Epidemiology.

Learn More About the Department of Mental Health.