James L. Griffith Installed as Leon M. Yochelson Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

Dr. Griffith has devoted his career to promoting humanism in psychiatry.

James L. Griffith (left) is honored with a medal by Provost Steven Lerman and SMHS Dean and Vice President for Health Affairs Jeffrey S. Akman (right) on Monday.
August 14, 2014

By Lauren Ingeno

Throughout his career, James L. Griffith, a psychiatrist and professor in the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), has sought to not only treat disease, but also to humanize mental illness.

Dr. Griffith was formally installed as the chair and Leon M. Yochelson Professor of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences during a ceremony in Walter G. Ross Hall on Monday. The endowed professorship was established in 1982 in honor of Dr. Yochelson, the founder and first chair of the department.

Dr. Griffith, affectionately known as “Griff” by his colleagues, joined the SMHS faculty in 1994 and has served as interim chair of the psychiatry department since 2011. While at GW, Dr. Griffith built upon the department’s nationally recognized psychiatry residency program, garnering recognition for its global mental health, mental health policy and psychosomatic medicine curricula.

Growing up in a poor Southern Mississippi community, Dr. Griffith witnessed the struggles of poverty throughout his childhood. He completed his residency in neurology at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine in 1979, but was ultimately led to a career in psychiatry, because he desired to affect patients’ lives in ways greater than simply treating their illness.

“Doctors are healers. Healing is sometimes about curing disease; more often it’s about relieving pain and disability,” Dr. Griffith told the audience Monday evening. “Only psychiatry, among the disciplines of medicine, both treats disease and enriches beyond disease to impact other sources of suffering that I saw around me—particularly abuse, neglect and exploitation of other human beings.”

Dr. Griffith joins a group of three other physicians who have held the Leon M. Yochelson Professor title, including, most recently, SMHS Dean and Vice President for Health Affairs Jeffrey S. Akman. Following introductory remarks from Provost Steven Lerman, Dr. Akman praised Dr. Griffith, remarking how special it was to honor his longtime colleague and friend.

“I quickly developed a deep admiration for his commitment to education, training and scholarship, as well as his creative efforts to understand and integrate the many disparate and highly complex aspects that make us human,” Dr. Akman said. 

Dr. Griffith provides psychiatric treatment for immigrants, refugees and survivors of political torture, and he has received the Human Rights Community Award from the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area. He has published extensively on family-centered psychiatric care, spirituality and religion, authoring several books on these topics.

Still, he considers teaching to be his primary passion, and is a recipient of the SMHS Distinguished Teacher Award.

“At no point have I ever considered any job other than teaching at a medical school,” he said.

Driven by his interest in promoting human rights globally, Dr. Griffith created a unique, four-year Global Mental Health Track within the psychiatric residency program, intended for residents who wish to treat patients in multicultural, international or post-conflict settings. This track includes seminars such as “The Science of Social Bonds and Human Relationships” and “The Hope Modules,” which integrate the teachings of humanism with neuroscience.

Going forward, Dr. Griffith said he has two main goals for the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences—to engage fully in mental health policy and advocacy at local and international levels, and to translate neuroscience research into practices that can treat mental illnesses and relieve human suffering more broadly.

Dr. Griffith stressed that the mentally ill are stigmatized and often discriminated against in every country throughout the world. The only way to combat this trend, he said, is through research that will guide practices for “re-humanizing” those who are stigmatized and to carry those practices beyond the United States.

“Promoting mental health promotes civil society. This becomes our contribution to peace building,” Dr. Griffith said. “We have a mission I think we can accomplish. For this, I continue to work more hours and sleep less than I did when I was a resident in training.”