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Preventing youth violence

Iris Borowsky, M.D., Ph.D. (Photo: Scott Streble)

A University of Minnesota pediatrician takes a leading role on the national problem

Though the problem of youth violence reigns large in the United States, Iris Borowsky, M.D., Ph.D., is not one to dwell on the negative. Instead, she has spent the past 19 years at the University of Minnesota researching ways to prevent the problem.

“When you look at our country, we’re way in the lead in things like rates of firearm injuries,” says Borowsky, a nationally recognized expert on youth violence and director of the Department of Pediatrics’ recently merged divisions of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health. “The health consequences of youth violence are severe. I focus on what we can do to prevent children from falling into cycles of violence, and how to alert professionals who work with children to be aware of the signs.”

When she’s not in the clinic, Borowsky researches issues such as bullying, healthy parenting, and teen fatalism.

Findings from her recent bullying study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, have been widely reported. It revealed that more than half of Minnesota students in grades 6, 9, and 12 were victims or perpetrators of bullying—a concerning statistic because suicide risk is strongly associated with bullying.

“We found that children who were affected by bullying but had strong connections with parents, liked school, and had solid relationships with other adults or friends were much less likely to think about suicide,” Borowsky reports, “and that the converse is true for higher risk of suicide. Our hope is that these findings will enable people who work with children to identify suicide risk and intervene early.”

Borowsky developed an intervention program several years ago designed to help doctors identify and treat mental illness in adolescents and improve parent/child connectedness through a phone-based parent-training program. After running a controlled study at eight pediatric practices, Borowsky found that the program was working: nine months after the intervention, both fight-related injuries for which medical care was required and violent behavior were significantly reduced in youths ages 7 to 15.

“Dr. Borowsky is renowned for her leadership in addressing child and adolescent health disparities,” says colleague Tina Cheng, M.D., M.P.H., division chief of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. “She has a deep commitment to improving health for vulnerable children and is a wonderful role model.”

The Academic Pediatric Association agrees; this year, the group singled out Borowsky for the prestigious Miller-Sarkin Mentoring Award, acknowledging her outstanding work.

“I love working with students at all levels,” says Borowsky, “even with high school students, getting them excited about careers in health care, and in violence prevention. Youth violence is something we all need to care about because it’s a national epidemic, and it’s preventable.”

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