Dr. Jim Stevenson: Longest serving psychiatry chair in the United States

If you could identify in one word how Jim Stevenson, MD, feels about his long-standing career in psychiatry, it would be gratitude.

Gracious, soft-spoken, sincere, and grateful about his successes and advancements in treating mental illness, Dr. Stevenson concedes that he was in the right place at the right time.

“I was given the opportunity of a lifetime, fresh out of my residency at WVU, to start out as chief of psychiatry at the Charleston Area Medical Center (CAMC) because there was no one else to do it. Many of the things that I’ve accomplished in my career can be attributed to that opportunity, plus a lot of support from family, friends, and many colleagues,” said Stevenson, chair of the WVU Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry.

As the longest serving psychiatry chair for a school of medicine in the United States and one of WVU’s longest serving department chairs, Stevenson has made a tremendous impact on behavioral medicine in the state.

Helping to shape early treatment programs for severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, he has acted as a catalyst for the progressive improvement of mental health treatment. As the executive medical director since 1987, Stevenson’s influence has helped build WVU Healthcare’s Chestnut Ridge Center into the leading regional referral center in the state. Services have expanded to more than a dozen locations and include child psychiatry, substance abuse, adult mental health programs, forensic consultations, and telepsychiatry.

Through his appointment as the state medical director for behavioral health services, Stevenson came to fully appreciate and comprehend the challenges associated in developing and administering policy needed to shape the future of mental health services in West Virginia.

“Behavioral and mental health illnesses permeate all areas of medicine, and people with mental disorders have long faced discrimination in healthcare. Creating any kind of change or improvement at the state and national level is an unbelievably difficult job,” Stevenson said. “The greatest challenge for me when I started my career was getting the medical community, and the general population, to accept how important and wide-reaching mental illness is and to erase the stigma associated with the disease.”

Stevenson is set to retire as chair of the WVU Department of Behavioral Medicine on June 30. His colleagues and students say his passion and energy are infectious and that he will be sincerely missed. “Dr. Stevenson is a role model, mentor, teacher, and, above all, a friend to every student rotating through the Chestnut Ridge Center,” said Caitlin Wenzke, a postgraduate intern in psychiatry at the WVU School of Medicine. “His warmth, compassion, and enthusiasm for psychiatry and life in general is contagious. No matter what field students ultimately choose, Dr. Stevenson has an uncanny ability to reach out to each and every medical student and make them personally want to be a better physician and a person as a whole.”

Brian Quigley, MD, Stevenson’s friend and WVU behavioral medicine colleague, said he has established the reputation of the University in the field of psychiatry. “People all over the world know about WVU because of Jim Stevenson,” Dr. Quigley said. “He builds bridges and connects individuals everywhere he goes. I’ve been fretting about him leaving, but after thinking about it, I’ve realized that the foundation and legacy that he’s created isn’t going to go away.”

Stevenson believes that the biggest challenges his field faces in the future are in understanding how genetic factors contribute to mental illness; how to deal with the addiction epidemic in this state and nationally; using imaging and technology; and, how to help patients live the best life possible with the care that’s available.

“Mental illness is not curable. It is similar to other chronic diseases in that it requires ongoing care,” Stevenson said. “Patients will no longer be punished for seeking care, and our studies have shown they will access care for mental illness if the services offered are available and trustworthy.”

With the stigma slowly diminishing and awareness increasing, Stevenson believes that WVU and West Virginia are poised to provide the best care to patients.

Asked why he’s stuck around the area for so long, he said, “I have a great attachment and loyalty to my state, and I really think Morgantown is a vibrant community with a lot to offer. My wife and I had several opportunities to move on, but we never really found another place that made as much sense as this one.”

Did you know...

  1. The WVU School of Medicine was the first in the country to rotate students through a clinical addiction program, which is now a requirement for all American medical students.
  2. Resident graduates of the WVU School of Medicine’s behavioral medicine program currently practice in 30 states and are representative on the faculties of 20 different medical schools.
  3. The WVU Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry in partnership with the West Virginia Bureau for Behavioral Health currently operates 27 telepsychiatry clinics throughout the state of West Virginia.
Kari Beth Law, MD, director of telepsychiatry and forensic psychiatrist at Chestnut Ridge Center consults with Elizabeth Six-Workman, BSN, RN, coordinator for telepsychiatry services at a remote location in West Virginia via a web camera and a secure, HIPPA-compliant computer server.