Kelly Banneyer was in high school when she first became fascinated with the fact that your brain can be the source of sickness. One of her friends was suffering from a mental illness and Banneyer saw, firsthand, the way the disease can take away much of what’s good in a person’s life.
That epiphany’s fueled her studies for seven years, all the way into what’s now her fourth year of a doctorate in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology.
As part of her doctoral program, Banneyer works at the college’s Texas Child Study Center (TCSC), Central Texas’s premier pediatric mental health service facility. The Center was created in partnership with Dell Children’s Medical Center and, in addition to seeing patients, offers training for future psychologists and psychiatrists like Banneyer.
“I’m a graduate assistant for Dr. Kevin Stark, the co-founder and current director of the Center,” said Banneyer, “and I’m working with him on a major treatment study of anxiety in children. This means I get into the nitty-gritty of collecting and analyzing data, in addition to recruiting, assessing, and working with study participants. I also supervise a team of 11 undergraduate and 12 graduate students, whom I recruited and who are being trained at the Center. And I see around 8-10 patients per week.”
Although Banneyer’s focus of study is anxiety, students with a wide array of interests can be accommodated by the Center. Whether a doctoral student wants to specialize in obesity and behavioral health, oncology and mental health issues, or autism, the Center’s partnership with Dell Children’s opens the door for topnotch training opportunities.
“You can’t imagine how often parents come in and say, ‘My child is exactly the way I was at that age and I’d give anything to have had the help he’s getting. They tell us we’re lifesavers. Who wouldn’t want a career like this?” – Kelly Banneyer
“It’s amazing how many choices we have,” said Banneyer. “I like working with children who suffer from anxiety, specifically, because it’s so debilitating but so treatable. There’s definitely help and hope. One of the most promising aspects of the treatment we use is how effective the parent training portion is – when you couple parent education with therapy for the child, the outcomes are very positive.”
Banneyer relates the story of one little boy she treated who had such severe separation anxiety that he couldn’t go to school without his parents. Either mom or dad had to be in the classroom and on the field with him when he was playing sports, and when he was at home he couldn’t remain in a room alone. By working with the child, in stages, on having his parents physically away from him and giving the parents strategies they could use at home to model desirable behavior, Banneyer saw her patient’s behavior steadily improve.
Another child she’s helped had a debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder that was triggered when anyone was physically near him. He was constantly moving, multiple times a minute, and couldn’t do simple things like sit with the family on the couch and watch TV. Or ride in the car with others. Or be hugged by his parents. In fact, when he initially went to the TCSC, he could not sit in a therapy room with his parents and the therapist – the rooms simply weren’t big enough.
“He’d always had a few behavior quirks but nothing that disrupted his life to this extent,” said Banneyer. “When he entered middle school, though, that was the stress trigger that set off this extreme reaction. We’ve noticed that middle school can be one of the top triggers for the presentation of anxiety disorders in boys.
“Fortunately, our therapy seems to be working and now when you see him out in the waiting room he’s leaning comfortably against his dad and playing with his phone. He’s even gone on several road trips with his family.”
It’s students like Banneyer, ones with excellent research and clinical skills, who have helped the TCSC gain a national reputation as a great training facility.
“Our graduate students are obtaining degrees in school psychology, and normally school psychology students don’t get the plum, more competitive clinical internships, but ours are being placed at the top internship sites in the nation.” – Kevin Stark
“Our graduate students are obtaining degrees in school psychology, and normally school psychology students don’t get the plum, more competitive clinical internships,” said Stark, “but ours are being placed at the top internship sites in the nation. Since we opened the Center, our trainees have consistently completed their internships at Harvard/Boston Children’s Hospital and at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which is the number one internship in the country.”
Banneyer’s ultimate aim is to be director of an anxiety disorders research center, combining her love of research with the actual application of it. Right now she’s gathering copious amounts of data for the anxiety study, writing many papers, and presenting at conferences around the nation in preparation for attaining that goal.
“You can’t imagine how often parents come in and say, ‘My child is exactly the way I was at that age and I’d give anything to have had the help he’s getting,’” said Banneyer. “They tell us we’re lifesavers. Who wouldn’t want a career like this?”