Blending psychology, dentistry, social media to help patients

Sheela Raja

“I’m committed to getting evidence-based psychology out there, and I know a lot of people get their information through media and blog posts,” says psychologist Sheela Raja. Photo: Joshua Clark/UIC Photo Services

When the news media are doing a story on stress or anxiety, they seek out psychologist and College of Dentistry professor Sheela Raja.

It keeps her busy.

In a recent two-month span, Raja:
• gave an invited talk for Schweitzer Foundation Healthcare fellows on the importance of trauma-informed care in a health setting

• spoke with a freelance reporter from England who was working on an in-depth piece on post-traumatic stress disorder — in particular, the role of multiple deployments on mental health and suicide

• was interviewed by a reporter for a local parenting magazine on the role of mindfulness, exercise and posture in stress management

• did segments for CBS on back-to-school anxiety, one providing tips for parents on the weekend before school started ­— “We can’t expect our kids to focus when they have to walk through a war zone to get to school” —  and one addressing students’ fears that they won’t have friends, won’t fit in or won’t be able to keep up with homework

• appeared on the CBS Chicago evening news advising how to help kids cope with school closings and talking about the Chicago Public Schools “safe passage” program

• talked on CNN about the Ariel Castro rape/kidnaping case and the psychological impact on his victims

• spoke on CBS Chicago about how daylight saving time can affect our moods and ways to stay healthy with the shorter daylight hours.

Raja is an assistant professor of pediatric dentistry, which wouldn’t seem to have much to do with anxiety or PTSD.

“I actually teach broadly in the dental school as a whole,” she explained.

“I teach students how to take a good health history, how to work with anxious or depressed patients, how to deal with acute and chronic pain (from a behavioral standpoint) and how to talk with patients about bad news or adverse events.

“When I got into this position, I realized that most health care providers don’t receive much training on how to successfully engage traumatized patients.

“There is lots of evidence that traumatized patients — survivors of domestic violence, sexual abuse, combat — tend to use medical care a lot, but they underutilize preventative care.”

Raja blogs every few months for Huffington Post on such diverse topics as the Newtown school shootings, helicopter parents, the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse case and the question, “Can women have it all?”

“I post whenever I want to,” she said. “I’m committed to getting evidence-based psychology out there, and I know a lot of people get their information through media and blog posts. And I enjoy doing it.”

She has a small private practice that focuses on stress management.

As for her own stress, Raja said, “I have a great support system — a very supportive family and several very close friends.

“I’m working on setting limits on my work time. That’s a challenge to all of us, as access to iPhones, iPads and all of our technology keeps us connected to work 24/7. It’s important to set boundaries.”

She added, “Being involved with my children is a great way to manage stress. Children are always in the moment.”

Raja, who grew up in Villa Park, earned her bachelor’s degree at the Urbana-Champaign campus and her master’s and Ph.D. at UIC. She did post-doc work at the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Boston.

She wrote a book, Overcoming Trauma and PTSD, published last December.

“It’s for the public and therapists who want to use it in conjunction with their clients,” she said.

Raja lives in Oak Park with her husband, Nur, a retirement planner, and their two daughters, ages 10 and 7.

“I really think I have an amazing job here at UIC,” she said.

“Being a clinical psychologist and teaching health psychology opens up so many amazing opportunities — to be involved in research, teaching and service.

“It’s also great to be able to take my educational efforts to a broader audience through media and print.”

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