Baylor faculty member earns nearly $3 million grant to study evidence-based practices in psychology

March 18, 2019
News - Sara Dolan
Dr. Sara Dolan

Sara Dolan, Ph.D. earned a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Contact: Whitney Richter, Director of Marketing and Communications, Office of the Vice Provost for Research, 254-710-7539
Written by: Blake Thomas, Office of the Vice Provost for Research

WACO, Texas (March 18, 2019) – Sara L. Dolan, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor’s College of Arts and Sciences, has been awarded a five-year grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for a project aimed at improving clinical practice for children who have been victims of abuse and trauma. The grant, which totals nearly $3 million, allows Dolan and her collaborators, including Stacy Ryan-Pettes, Ph.D. here at Baylor, to develop and implement new training methods in assessment and diagnosis for counselors and social workers, ultimately leading to improved outcomes for their patients.

“Grant awards of the magnitude awarded to Sara Dolan, Ph.D., and her colleagues are rare, and attests to skillful leadership provided by these faculty that will have a huge impact on our R1 aspirations here at Baylor,” said Lee Nordt, Ph.D., College of Arts and Sciences dean.

Therapists and counselors commonly use evidence-based treatment (EBT) methods, which are interventions that have been validated through scientific studies to be effective for treating a particular disorder. The problem, Dolan says, is that therapists often deploy these treatments without first using evidence-based assessments (EBA), diagnostic methods that are grounded in the most current scientific knowledge.

“Clinicians are pretty good about learning new treatments, but formal assessment is not a huge part of what they do in practice so they’re not following the literature in that area as closely,” Dolan said. “They’re doing very informal assessments that let them start treatment right away.”

These informal evaluation techniques, while faster and more cost-effective than formal, instrument-based assessments, can cause clinicians working with abused and traumatized children to overlook certain disorders in favor of other, seemingly more obvious problems.

“Oftentimes clinicians are leaping to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” Dolan said, “and they might miss other things like depression or other kinds of anxiety or suicidal behaviors. If they’re jumping right to PTSD, they’re going to give PTSD treatments, which is fantastic, but that might not be the correct treatment.”

“Dr. Dolan is a highly respected colleague,” said Charles Weaver, Ph.D., psychology and neuroscience department chair. “As Graduate Program Director of our Clinical Psychology program, she has provided strong and steady leadership. Her commitment to research is equally strong, and this grant will allow Dr. Dolan and her colleagues to do critically important work, while also raising the department’s research profile. We look forward to her many years of continuing contributions to Baylor University.

Jeff Wherry, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler, is the co-investigator on the grant. Dolan says Wherry is the “subject matter expert” on the project, owing to his extensive background in evaluation and assessment of evidence-based practices.

“All of my research is assessment-focused and I have a strong interest in PTSD. [Wherry] has developed a lot of these assessments and he’s been using these assessments and doing trainings in this area for a long time,” said Dolan. “It was a really natural fit to work with him on this project.”

“The support for training afforded by this SAMHSA grant is exciting,” said Wherry. “We are now part of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN)—a group of 100 agencies and universities training clinicians and serving traumatized children. We will make training available to 66 community-based agencies serving children in the NCTSN, and also will offer training to more than 850 children’s advocacy centers across the nation. Over the course of 5 years we hope to train more than 800 clinicians and doctoral students in evidence-based assessment of abused and traumatized children. When you consider the number of children served by these clinicians, the impact is exponential. Additionally, we will be training additional trainers, so that the impact continues beyond the funding of the grant.”

While the immediate goal of the grant-funded project is to evaluate the effectiveness of different methods of training providers, Dolan says the work represents one piece of a larger part of Baylor’s mission to positively impact lives through research.

“This is a way that Baylor can influence scientifically based practice in our community. It is giving us an opportunity to have a really big impact and to have Baylor’s name on that impact.”

Kevin Chambliss, Ph.D., Baylor’s interim vice provost for research, echoed Dolan’s comments.

“This project is a great example of the goals articulated in the University’s academic strategic plan, Illuminate. Research like this helps us meet our aspiration of reaching R1 status and becoming one the nation’s top research institutions while strengthening and deepening our Christian commitment.”