Winter 2023 Newsletter

Community Psychology in Practice and Policy

group of people joining hands

Alumni Profile: Rachel Siegal ‘16

Rachel Siegal portrait
Rachel Siegal ‘16

Health and community psychology involve applied research—projects that focus on solving real-world problems. Health psychology concentrates on the promotion of wellbeing, prevention and treatment of illness, and improvement of health care systems through research, education, and advocacy. Community psychology is centered on collaboration with community members, groups, and organizations; providing tools to inform a group’s capacity to address issues of social justice; and exploring and addressing complex challenges across multiple levels (e.g., individual, family, neighborhood, and policy).

Rachel Siegal ‘16 is currently specializing in Community Psychology within the Health Psychology PhD Program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. This program has allowed her to partner with local organizations and communities on projects that have a significant impact. Through her experience as a researcher and evaluator, Siegal has witnessed first-hand how an individual’s wellbeing is shaped by their environment. A person’s family, neighborhood, and education—as well as the larger systems and policies in place within our communities—all influence health and well-being. “Not only do we want to promote well-being for all, but we want to address the disparities that currently exist for different groups,” she notes.

Siegal became interested in the medical field and neuroscience as a potential career direction after suffering a concussion during high school. During her college years, she worked as a certified nursing assistant in a local rehabilitation center, also spending a summer as a fellow in a clinical neuropsychology lab at Boston Children’s Hospital. She enjoyed working with people but also observed how systems and organizations can fail the very people they are trying to serve. She realized that she wanted to advocate for systems change on a macro level, but wasn’t sure how to do that.

As an undergraduate majoring in psychology with a neuroscience focus, she had the opportunity to work in David Moorman’s lab studying neural changes underlying addiction. She learned about the research process, and with the help of then graduate student John Hernandez she completed a thesis on the neural activity in the brain when cues signaling sucrose and alcohol rewards were presented. She first learned about community psychology through a course offered by David Scherer (now Professor Emeritus) on psychology and public policy. This course helped her realize that she could use her psychology and research training to influence public policy and programs.

After graduating from UMass Amherst, she received opportunities to become involved in more community-based projects such as an evaluation of a comprehensive safe schools program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore School of Medicine at the National Center for School Mental Health. This project used a multi-level approach working with state systems, schools, and individuals to study a series of emotional and behavioral health crisis interventions and its impact on school safety and discipline. This evaluation was more in-line with Siegal’s career aspirations and values as the study used numerous layers of analysis and partnered with educators, the school district, and the community.

Rachel Siegal in graduation robes with friend Caitlin Simmons
Siegal receiving her Master's degree from UNCC, with friend and mentor, Caitlin Simmons (left) receiving her PhD on the same day

Taking her previous experiences in mind, Siegal began her doctoral program at UNC Charlotte. She is currently finishing her 3-manuscript dissertation, focused on community violence prevention. Her dissertation projects have grown out of her work with the City of Charlotte, and in particular her participation in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Community Violence Data Collaborative, a group that provides research and evaluation support for local violence prevention programs.

For one of her dissertation projects, Siegal is collaborating with Carlene Mayfield at Atrium Health, a large healthcare system, studying patterns related to emergency department visits. For people who present with violent trauma (i.e., gunshot, stab wound, or blunt assault-related injury), they are exploring participants’ previous patterns of healthcare service utilization, for instance, if they have access to and regularly use primary care. Describing a major aim of the study, Siegal adds, “if there are pathways where we can intervene further upstream and say, ‘okay we see that this group of people tend to not have these patterns of violent trauma and of showing up at the emergency department…what are the interventions that worked for them that we could adapt and implement elsewhere?”

Siegal employs quantitative and qualitative methods in her research, also using technologies like GIS to perform geospatial analysis within neighborhoods. As part of her second dissertation project, she used ‘walking-interviews’ that involved speaking with Charlotte residents about their perceptions of safety and violence as they walked through their neighborhood. These visits to neighborhood streets and landmarks have proved useful in documenting participants’ current safety concerns and experiences of violence. Using these data, Siegal prepares graphs and geospatial maps which include photos of the neighborhood, from the walking interview. These visual representations make the results of her studies more accessible to community partners who will use these data to advocate for change.

Additionally, working with the Community Violence Data Collaborative, and the Charlotte Regional Data Trust, (i.e., an integrated data system that houses data across sectors), Siegal has co-led the development of an integrated data project. This project will explore patterns of education, welfare, and criminal justice contact for youth later involved in the criminal justice system, and their relation to recidivism. Results from this project can be used to help identify potential trends and inform future interventions.

Recruiting participants for her dissertation project at a community event
Recruiting participants for her dissertation project at a community event.
Left to right: Clysha Whitlow, an HP doctoral student helping with recruitment, Charlotte's Mayor Vi Lyles, and Rachel Siegal.

Through this integrated data effort, Siegal and community partners grappled with the importance of including domestic violence prevention in these conversations, and the challenges around accessing relevant data, given important legal protections. To start to address these challenges, Siegal and Jennifer Langhinrichsen-Rohling lead the evaluation for the Domestic Violence Research Collaborative, a group convened by Elyse Hamilton-Childres at Mecklenburg County Community Support Services to develop trauma- and survivor-informed recommendations for conducting research, programming, and policy. One objective of this collaborative is to work with providers and domestic violence survivors on ways to collect data from survivors in a person-centered, trauma-informed manner, and build a set of resources for providers.

Siegal has already seen lasting results from this work. “One of the health care providers said that they've changed the way they collect data at their healthcare center. In these interviews we've done…you can hear how individuals have been impacted in a positive way, but you can also see this as an example of how the organization is changing, and that's going to have an impact on people beyond just those in this research collaborative,” she says.

According to Siegal, the most rewarding part of her job is seeing how her work is improving people’s lives and their environments. She uses her training in research and evaluation to uplift communities marginalized by systems and policies, reduce social and health inequities, and bring about positive change. Siegal is grateful for the excellent mentors, friends, and family that have helped her along the way. Now as someone who mentors others herself, she is excited to give back and support other students’ journeys.