The co-founder of Duke University’s Center for Child & Family Health has spent more than 30 years studying childhood mental health and trauma
By Elizabeth Poindexter | Photography by John Michael Simpson
As the daughter of a child psychiatrist and a nurse, Dr. Lisa Amaya-Jackson felt an ingrained need to help others. She graduated from Jordan High School and then William & Mary before pursuing both her medical degree and master of public health at UNC. Lisa has spent the past 30 years at Duke University in the same field as her father – child psychiatry. The reach of her decades of research and clinical work has positively affected outcomes for thousands of children and their families in Durham and beyond.
As the co-founder of the Center for Child & Family Health and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine, she endeavors to build bridges between academia and the community.
“For so many people, the meaning of their life centers on their children and their families growing up healthy,” Lisa says. “We know what works; we know what makes a difference. And, we can change the trajectory of a child’s life for the better.”
She also co-directs the UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, which secured more than $40 million in federal funding in 2022. The center is responsible for the leadership activities of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which has nearly 200 sites around the country. The organizations aim to increase access to and quality of care for traumatized youth and families. Their work ranges from policy briefs and research to sharing evidence-based treatments so systems including schools and juvenile justice institutions are more trauma-informed.
“It has allowed me to be part of something so much bigger than I ever envisioned,” she says. “There’s a lot of knowledge and science that has advanced in the field.”
“The mental health system is very broken,” she explains, referencing exhausted and strained workers – a problem even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Lisa would like to see a dramatic shift to a healthy and strong mental health workforce.
“There are these evidence-based treatments, and there are good people who want to do good things,” she says. “But when the system is struggling like it is, they’re getting exhausted and burned out.”
Lisa also serves as a Eucharistic minister with Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and can often be found on the American Tobacco Trail or in a Zumba class at Millennium Sports Club. In 2020, she received a humanitarian award from the Duke Medical Alumni Association.
“We’re answering the question: What does it mean to be trauma-informed or trauma-focused in the work that you do?” Lisa says. “I’m most proud of making a significant contribution to bringing a trauma lens for children to Duke and to our community.”