By Katinka Podmaniczky

I’d like to introduce you to Dr. Deborah Allen.

She is the director of the Bureau of Child, Adolescent, and Family Health and a longtime advocate for children with special healthcare needs. Here at BPHC, Deborah is a driving force behind our efforts to increase the availability of high-quality services for children with behavioral health needs.

Deborah is in the front row, middle, pictured with colleagues.

This means that she formed an Early Childhood Mental Health Team to ensure that Boston families have access to children’s mental health services; she partnered with Boston Public Schools to provide outreach and support to children who experience frequent absences due to the child, sibling or parents’ mental or physical health problems; and she secured federal funding to support a system of early intervention mental health care for Boston children.

Deborah also advocated for changes to state insurance mandates to ensure that children with autism could gain access to diagnosis and treatment services without having to pay out-of-pocket expenses.

Dr. Allen was recently recognized for her work from the Association for Behavioral Healthcare. She received the Carl B. Cutchins Award for Children’s Behavioral Health, which goes to “someone who has demonstrated a long-term commitment to supporting and enhancing services for troubled children/adolescents at the state or local level.”

KP – I wanted to ask Deborah what motivates her to do the work that she does every day. It can’t be easy!

DA – What motivates me is the feeling that public health is so much a reflection of social justice. Simply, when people live in a healthy environment, their health is good. Public health provides a critical window into what it means to have a decent, fair society.

KP – You have a master’s degree in Health Policy and Management, and master’s and doctoral degrees in Maternal and Child Health from the Harvard School of Public Health. What advice would you give someone starting out in your field, or considering the field of public health?

DA – Most importantly, think really deeply about the people you serve – at a national level, state level, local level – about their needs, their dreams, their perspectives on health and health care.  Find every opportunity to engage the community in improving their own health – whether it’s about prevention or about dealing with an existing health problem. This connection to community makes for good public health; it also makes the work incredibly rewarding and exciting. It’s not all abstract; it has an effect on people’s lives. You are giving people a voice.

KP – What do you see as the next issue or challenge you want to tackle?

DA – Underlying much of the mental health work we do in my bureau are social disparities related to racism and poverty, stress caused by those disparities, and the effects of that stress on health. The World Health Organization talks about stress due to social conditions as major cause of disparities in physical and mental health worldwide. That issue is not going to go away. We need to learn more about how public health can help to improve the social conditions that give rise to stress and how to help people deal with the stress they face.

KP – If you didn’t work in public health and could do anything else in the world, what would you mostly likely be doing instead?

DA – Well, I set out to be an actress, and the fact that I ended doing something so very different continues to surprise me!

Katinka Podmaniczky is the assistant director of communications at the Boston Public Health Commission. If she didn’t work in public health, she’d like to be a professional baker.