Spring 2020 Newsletter

Alumni Profile: Courtney Keeton ‘05PhD, Clinical Psychologist

Finding balance and new potential

Courtney Pierce-KeetonAs a clinical psychologist and researcher, Courtney Keeton ‘05PhD has made it her mission to better understand and treat anxiety in children and adolescents. With great passion for her clinical work, she guides families through interventions—empowering children with anxiety to overcome their fears and live fuller lives. She has also contributed to many significant research studies that helped to create an evidence-base for widely-used treatments like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

In 2014, Keeton co-founded the Anxiety Treatment Center of Maryland where she and her team offer psychological interventions for anxiety and mood disorders. Keeton is one of few Maryland specialists treating selective mutism, a condition that renders a child unable to speak in certain social settings like school. While treatment involves direct work with the child, she says it is essential to also include parents and school personnel who ultimately provide “boots on the ground support” for enabling youth to gradually increase their speaking capacity.

Starting as a Pre-Med biology major at Duke University, Keeton ended up finding psychology somewhat by chance. Early on she got the opportunity to work in a psychology lab, studying traumatic life experiences and PTSD. As her first exposure to the clinical psychology world, she found this topic fascinating and the experience opened her eyes to the subject of mental health. She continued to learn from the psychology community at Duke, studying adolescent identity development and completing an honors thesis on the topic of peer relationships and resiliency.

Not knowing exactly what psychology career she wanted to pursue, Keeton found that the UMass Amherst Clinical Psychology program offered an equal balance of both clinical practice and research training. Faculty member Maureen Perry-Jenkins had begun the Work and Family Transitions Project (WFTP) which focused on the transition to parenthood and the individual and environmental factors that play a role in health, well-being, and relationships. This matched well with Keeton’s interests, as she was excited to learn about how individuals and families fare in the context of life events.

As a research assistant for the WFTP, Keeton performed in-depth interviews of new parents at their homes, covering a wide-range of topics like conflict and communication in the marriage and perceived stressors and supports at work. “It was such good training to get comfortable interviewing people around personal matters, learning how to make somebody else feel comfortable, and to develop a rapport with someone…which are really essential skills if you want to be a therapist or a researcher working with people,” says Keeton. For her, this project brought to light the wide variety of factors, from socioeconomic status to employment to family relationships, that must be considered when understanding people and their life experiences. 

Using additional WFTP mental-health assessment data, she steered her dissertation to focus on changes in anxiety and depression symptoms during the transition to parenthood. Keeton also worked with faculty member Lisa Harvey, receiving additional training on interviewing and assessing parents and young children. As a result of these collective experiences, she finalized her decision to specialize in child and adolescent psychology with particular interests in anxiety, depression, and the role of contextual factors in treatment.

After completing her pre-doctoral internship at Duke University Medical Center, she went on to a postdoctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (JHU SOM), Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Drawing from her experience as a project coordinator for the WFTP, she became the lead coordinator for the Child/Adolescent Anxiety Multimodal Study (CAMS), the largest known clinical trial on pediatric anxiety treatments. In addition to using management and research skills to coordinate the multi-institution study, she was trained by prominent psychologists in the field to implement a cognitive behavioral therapy protocol. Keeton went on to become a faculty member at JHU SOM, a position that offered opportunities for continued academic research and clinical work.

While Keeton’s training at UMass ultimately led her to a dream position in academic medicine, she discovered that working on the WFTP offered some unexpected perspective when she found herself juggling multiple roles as a married working parent. After 10 years of a research heavy position, she decided to start a private practice based on her clinical passion of offering interventions grounded in science, the Anxiety Treatment Center of Maryland.

In her current role, Keeton combines her knowledge of clinical psychology with the lessons she learned from Perry-Jenkins whose background is in human development and family studies. As such, she works with a child or adolescent’s whole family, and often their school as well, when treating anxiety. “One of the tasks is to identify and reverse patterns of avoidant behavior. I involve and educate the parents, training them how to help their kids face fears rather than avoid them. It’s very challenging to successfully treat child anxiety without significant involvement of their caregivers,” Keeton notes.

Now a part-time faculty member at JHU SOM, Keeton continues to teach psychiatry residents and complete pivotal studies including a project funded by the Department of Education that trained school nurses on a brief intervention for students with anxiety. She considers herself very fortunate to have received training at UMass Amherst as a researcher and clinician. Her comprehensive education gave her the flexibility to make a career shift possible.

One of the most rewarding aspects of Keeton’s profession is the transformative process she gets to witness, “I get to see kids and families improve their quality of life and overall life satisfaction. I see them become empowered to recognize what we’re able to control in our lives and how to accept what we can’t control. It feels good when you see somebody who is greatly impaired, somehow not functioning or meeting their potential, and be a part of helping somebody overcome that and function better.”