“The most powerful gateway drug isn’t marijuana—it’s tragedy,” says Dr. Jamar Shaw ’18, Master of Public Health (MPH). “We find that depression and addiction walk hand in hand.”
Shaw was inspired to enter the mental health field after watching his grandmother care for his uncle, who struggled with addiction most of his life after watching his brother drown.
“In that moment, my uncle’s entire world changed,” Shaw remembers. “He searched for something to numb the pain. And that’s what led him into addiction. While other family members were fed up and frustrated, I marveled at my grandma’s ability to have compassion for him. And it was really her persistence and love that led my uncle into sobriety.”
Shaw, who recently joined Emory Healthcare, previously served as director of medical affairs for the Central Florida Recovery Center. In that role, he applied what he learned to help diverse populations overcome addiction and mental health challenges. The clinic practices a nontraditional technique called psychosocial rehabilitation. “We believe if you can somehow help the root cause of the anxiety or depression that’s causing the addiction, it’s better than just treating the addiction itself with medication,” Shaw explains. “This has been very effective for us.”
Shaw says that the clinic aims to help patients become clean and sober in their own environments. “Our rehabilitators look at the house, where they live, and their family life structure. These are all things that play a role in their recovery. And we tailor their recovery plan based on these factors. We find that through this method, most of our patients move on to productive, amazing lives and sobriety.”
“A patient once told me that he wished he had leprosy, so that people could see and understand his pain. That was something that stuck with me—it really highlights what mental health is like.”
One of the challenges Shaw has encountered along the way is the stigma around depression, especially in the Black community. “I can speak for myself—there’s a big stigma with mental health, especially for Black males,” he says. “The mindset is, ‘You should just get over it, and you don’t need treatment.’” Shaw hopes that through the clinic’s outreach work in central Florida communities, those who are struggling gain the confidence and courage to seek out the treatment they require.
Shaw has another unique platform for banishing the shame and secrecy surrounding mental health: poetry. As a champion spoken word poet, he’s able to connect with communities across the globe, both online and offline. “Through poetry, I try to challenge dominant narratives related to health and race, bring awareness to health inequalities, and scrutinize the stigma of mental health,” he says. “It’s difficult, but rewarding. Even if you can help one patient or save one life, then it’s worth it.”