Jonathan Metzl Takes a Path Less Traveled
"You can do whatever you want in life, after medical school." That was the running joke at home for Jonathan Metzl, MD, PhD, director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University.
One of four boys born to a pediatrician father and psychoanalyst mother, Metzl and his brothers all went on to pursue medical careers. And while a family of physicians isn't necessarily unusual, the Metzl's story is. "My father was an immigrant who escaped Europe during World War II," Metzl explained. "The message we got growing up and one that we live by is that taking care of people is the way of giving back to those who saved our family's lives during a time of intense turmoil."
It was a message the Kansas City native took seriously. After receiving bachelor's degrees in biology and English literature, Metzl earned his medical degree from the University of Missouri. He then earned a master's degree in poetry during his psychiatry residency at Stanford University ... and went on to receive a PhD in American culture from the University of Michigan while working as a psychiatrist.
Metzl's unique insight into medicine and humanities has prepared him well for his multi-faceted role leading Vanderbilt's Center for Medicine, Health and Society - a multidisciplinary center that studies the social and societal dimensions of health and illness.
"On one hand I'm very appreciative of my knowledge in medical training and learning about the best way to diagnose and treat illnesses, but I've also become increasingly cognizant of the way socioeconomic and cultural barriers prevent our country from making the most people healthy that it can," Metzl said. "I became more interested in the ways health is a social justice issue, in addition to just my clinical interest."
A Good Fit
Metzl joined Vanderbilt in 2010 to help shape the direction of the newly formed center. "This was a chance to build institutional structure around issues I cared about, so it seemed like a great opportunity to spread information about medical and scientific knowledge and also to train students to understand the basic socioeconomic issues of health," he said.
While strides have been made in racial and socioeconomic disparities, Metzl said there's still a way to go as Americans struggle to separate healthcare from politics.
"It feels like over the last few years we've taken a step back," he said. "If you take the Democratic or Republican framework away, the general premise of having a healthy country is to afford as many people as possible the right to healthy communities and access to healthcare. I feel like healthcare has became incredibly political and increasingly unjust."
Uniquely positioned to address those disparities, the center includes an interdisciplinary faculty and a popular undergrad program in medicine, health and society. They've also built a master's program and established a community identity looking at issues of social health and all of its biological, medical and political complexities. The center is also a resource for the medical community, with ongoing forums ranging in topic from military health and food politics to disabilities.
"Although we're in a college setting, we're open for clinicians from across the Nashville area," Metzl said. "Our professors speak in community settings and are engaged locally in many ways - from working with military communities to city planning."
As the program grows, so does its integration into the increasingly diverse Nashville community.
A Respected Voice
Metzl's personal areas of interest include psychiatry, race and health, the history of mental health, and gender. He's currently engaged in a study on common sense solutions to gun violence.
"My research looks at things we can do from a public policy standpoint to lessen gun violence in America," said Metzl, who's a frequent contributor to journals that examine policy positions and interventions to help lessen rates of gun violence. "There are ways people wrongly stigmatize mental illness for gun violence when that's just not the case," he said.
A frequent public health commentator for national news outlets, Metzl also has authored a number of books including The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease; Against Health: How Health Became the New Morality; and Prozac on the Couch. His op-ed pieces have been published nationally.