Daniel Schechter

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Daniel S. Schechter (born in Miami, Florida in 1962) is an American psychiatrist currently living in Geneva, Switzerland. He is known for his clinical work and research on intergenerational transmission or "communication" of violent trauma and related psychopathology involving parents and very young children.[1][2]. His published work in this area following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York of (September 11, 2001) led to a co-edited book entitled "September 11: Trauma and Human Bonds" (2003) [3] and additional original articles with clinical psychologist Susan Coates that were translated into multiple languages and remain among the very first accounts of 9/11 related loss and trauma described by mental health professionals who also experienced the attacks and their aftermath[4][5][6][7] His observation of how developmentally salient separation anxiety among infants and young children who had either lost or feared loss of their caregivers had triggered posttraumatic stress symptoms and other forms of psychobiological dysregulation in the surviving caregivers validated his prior observations of the adverse impact of family violence on the early parent-child relationship, formative social-emotional development and related attachment disturbances [8][9][10] This body of work on trauma and attachment has been cited by prominent authors in the attachment theory, psychological trauma, and developmental psychobiology literatures [11][12][13][14][15]



Schechter completed his medical training at the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons. His earliest research examined the nature of mother-daughter relationships in the context of male-perpetrated child sexual abuse [16] as well as trauma-related culture-bound syndromes in an inner-city Caribbean Hispanic community[17]

An American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Presidential Scholar Award in 1998 and a subsequent Pilot Research Award, allowed Schechter to travel to Tulane University in New Orleans to study with infant mental health specialist Charles Zeanah. They have since collaborated on multiple projects and articles related to the effects of psychological trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on the relationship of infants, young children, and their parents as well as related attachment disorder.[18][19] This collaboration along with involvement as a Zero to Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families Solnit Fellow (1999–2001), encouraged Schechter to pursue first an NIH-funded research fellowship in developmental psychobiology with Myron Hofer and Michael Myers at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. In 2003, Schechter received an NIMH Research Career Award to fund the project "Maternal Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Interactive Behavior with Very Young Children" which was completed in 2008. Part of this project has involved functional neuroimaging studies of parental response to own and unfamiliar child stimuli in collaboration with Bradley Peterson. Articles related to this and other aspects of this program of research are continuing to be presented and published.

Schechter and colleagues' most recently published findings in the journal Psychiatry show that mothers with interpersonal-violence related PTSD, while not showing differences in their capacity to jointly attend to play with their toddlers before a stressor when compared to control-subjects, show significant limitation in their responsiveness to their toddlers upon reunion following separation stress. This is despite that children of PTSD mothers show no greater distress during separation than those of controls.[20]

In 2008, Schechter was appointed Director of Pediatric Consult-Liaison and Parent-Child Research in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Geneva Hospitals; and will be appointed in December, 2010 as Associate Professor (Privat Docent) in Psychiatry at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Geneva, Switzerland [21].

Schechter retains a position as Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University, Division of Developmental Neuroscience and Behavior as of April, 2008, having been previously Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry (in Pediatrics) from 2002 until then. Trained as a Psychoanalyst at Columbia, he is also Director of Child Research at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. Schechter has been a member of the International Psychoanalytic Association since 2003 and its College of Research Fellows since 1998.

He is most recently co-editor of the 2010 book entitled Formative Experiences: The Interaction of Caregiving, Culture, and Developmental Psychobiology [22] This book is currently in its second printing.

Schechter's work has received multiple awards including: a Pierre Janet Scientific Paper Prize from the International Society for Trauma and Dissociation (2007), two Significant Contribution to Research Awards from the International Psychoanalytical Association (2005,2009), a Gertrude von Meissner Research Prize from the University of Geneva Faculty of Medicine (2008), a John J. Weber Prize for Excellence in Psychoanalytic Research from the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training & Research (2009), and the Norbert and Charlotte Rieger Psychodynamic Psychotherapy Award from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2010).

He further observed and described in a series of research papers and clinical case-studies that many of these traumatized mothers, despite their best intentions, not only had great difficulty in "reading" and tolerating their infants' distress, but that they also had a tendency to misattribute their children's intentions and personality characteristics.[23][24] As a result, the child, in an effort to maintain an attachment with the traumatized parent, would conform to these misattributions and/or attempt to join the parent's hypervigilant mental state, leading to a traumatically-skewed intersubjectivity[25]

He developed an experimental paradigm informed by attachment theory called the Clinician Assisted Videofeedback Exposure Sessions (CAVES to test whether mothers could "change their mind" about their young children if helped to watch video-excerpts of play, separation and similarly stressful moments in the presence of a clinician who asks the mother to think about what she (and her child) might be thinking and feeling at the time of the excerpt and at the moment of videofeedback. Thus this technique applies principles of mentalization as an aide to emotional regulation with traumatized parents[26][27] This technique also involves elements of prolonged exposure treatment[28],the video-based treatment Interaction Guidance[29], and psychodynamically-oriented child-parent psychotherapy [30] Schechter and colleagues showed a significant change in the way mothers perceived their own child and their relationship together.[31]

Intergenerational communication of violent trauma

Following from the work of Scheeringa and Zeanah, Schechter explored the various implicit and explicit non-verbal and verbal ways parents communicate their traumatic experiences and their experiences of shared events traumatically[32]. In particular, Schechter has shown how a parent can vicariously and unintentionally transmit her prior experiences of interpersonal violence to her child through her behavior and narrative associations by doing or saying something—or drawing connections between actions and/or language, that the child cannot place in any familiar context, but that is by its nature, frightening or even traumatizing. His work has demonstrated this both in routine daily interactions, laboratory observations, and, most recently, in violent-media viewing practices by mothers and their toddlers in the home.[33][34][35][36] He has hypothesized that this inadvertent intergenerational transmission is often an effect of traumatized mothers' efforts to control their own psychophysiologic dysregulation that is linked to their posttraumatic psychopathology.

To test this hypothesis, Schechter and colleagues measured maternal salivary cortisol within a clinical sample of 32 mothers before and after a mother-child interaction protocol involving separations and reunions; the study led to the first publication in the literature examining maternal Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA-axis) functioning.[37] The study showed modest, but significant associations between pre-separation cortisol as well as cortisol reactivity with the severity of maternal PTSD, dissociative symptoms, and atypical caregiving behavior. Since that 2004 paper, other more rigorously controlled studies have been published that further support Schechter and colleagues' hypothesis. A recent review of these studies suggests that intergenerational effects related to PTSD and HPA-axis stress reactivity are likely via epigenetic mechanisms requiring further study[38] An additional active area of study related to this association, is that of gene-environment (GXE) interactions involving the role of the serotonin-transporter gene and its polymorphisms as markers of vulnerability (i.e., increased brain plasticity). Schechter and colleagues had observed clinically and hypothesized for empirical study in the 2003 September 11 book (see also related video) that the parent-child relationship (i.e., attachment security, specific organization, and characteristics) can be a buffer against and an exacerbating factor for the adverse consequences of violent trauma. Recent advances in the study of GXE interactions in the presence of environtmenal stressors such as interpersonal violence, and the regulatory effects of the serotonin transporter gene and other genes with which it is known to interact on the HPA axis in the context of child development have raised questions requiring further study.[39]

An important motivation for traumatized parents, Schechter and colleagues have found is the conscious aim of the traumatized parent to interrupt intergenerational cycles of violence and trauma so that her child does not have to suffer the emotional and often physical pain that she had experienced as a child. As Schechter and Willheim describe in a recent case-study, this can be a long and difficult process for families—and one that requires that the therapist be prepared to intervene thoughtfully (i.e. modelling and stimulating parental mentalization) as much in-the-moment in response to real-life events reported by the parents and professionals (i.e. pediatricians, daycare and preschool staff, child protective agencies, the courts) as during parent-child sessions.[40] The work with parents and their relationship with their child often needs to continue, when possible and feasible, even if the child brought to attention has been placed in foster care by child protective services, as both parents and child-turned-adult may go on to have other children and perpetuate risk for traumatization [41] As infants and young children and their needs are so rapidly developing, and as their parents find themselves in a parallel phase of adult development during which they are more open to change, the therapist can be surprised by quick, positive shifts in relational patterns within the context of both brief consultations and long-term treatments such as for caregivers with complex PTSD and their young children.[42][43]

Infant and early childhood mental health advocacy

Schechter served as a key member of the New York City Early Childhood Mental Health Strategic Work Group, an advisory group to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene under the direction of Evelyn Blanck from 2004-2008. In 2005, the Workgroup published a White Paper,“Promoting the Mental Health and Healthy Development of New York’s Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers, A Call to Action,” that has been used to effectively advocate for mental health services for children from birth to age 5 across all child-serving systems in New York City and New York State[44]. This paper was instrumental in the inclusion of infants and toddlers in the Child and Families Clinic Plus Initiative implemented by the New York State Office of Mental Health, thus officially recognized for the first time as under the responsibility for care by state licensed child and adolescent mental health clinical programs [45]. A second edition of this White Paper is currently in preparation. Schechter continues to be involved in this initiative as scientific advisor as well as in advocating for family-focused intervention in high risk for violence families in Geneva. In Geneva, he has been appointed to a city-wide group to consider guidelines for evaluation and potential inclusion of fathers who have been violent in child and family interventions. He supports the model by which a minimum of three patients per family receive individual attention by an interdisciplinary infant mental health treatment team in any given intervention: parent, child, and the parent-child relationship as patient. Schechter is also an active appointed member of the Infancy and Preschool Mental Health Committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) where he has served over the past decade and now addtionally will become a liaison to the International Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professions (IACAPAP) at its 2012 Congress and to the European Society of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (ESCAP). In prior terms on this AACAP Committee, he was liaison to Zero to Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families and to the American Psychiatric Association.



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