‘Mental Illness Is Not a Normal Part of Aging’


Sandra Swantek, MD

Sandra Swantek, MD​, has dedicated her career to ensuring quality mental care for older adults. She will be honored for her work when she receives the 2018 American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry Jackson-Siegal Clinician of the Year Award.

In this Q&A, the medical director of Rush’s geriatric psychiatry program tells us about herself and the honor, which she’ll receive in March in Honolulu.

Tell us about your background.

​I’m originally from Detroit. I received my undergraduate degree in communications from Michigan State University, East Lansing Michigan. I worked at a public radio station then a Detroit television station. I transitioned to communications work at a hospital on the east side of Detroit and created a community education program for a young hospice program. I recognized that I enjoyed working in a health care environment, and that I wanted to take on a different role in health care. I eventually realized that I wanted to be a psychiatrist.

I was 10 years out of school by then and not certain that I could do it. I started premed classes on my 30th birthday, all while working a day job. Medical school was both an exciting and terrifying challenge.

My first clinical psychiatry rotation at St. Louis University was on an older adult unit. That’s where I discovered where I belonged. After finishing medical school, I moved to Chicago, where I completed my residency in psychiatry and my fellowship in geriatric psychiatry at Northwestern University. Through the years I’ve worked in outpatient settings, inpatient hospitals, nursing homes and even made home visits.

What inspired you to choose geriatric psychiatry?

My mother’s loving interaction with family members with dementia, and the vital role that grandparents played in my life. The recognition that there was significant pain associated with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses that was made worse by the shame of stigma, and that there was treatment that could help.

What do you want us to know about geriatric psychiatry?

Mental illness, whether it is depression, dementia, anxiety or psychosis, is not a normal part of aging. There are treatments that can help reduce suffering and improve the quality of life for persons suffering from these conditions. These treatments include a variety of approaches, including individual and group-talk therapies, behavioral and environmental interventions and somatic treatments, such as medication and electroconvulsive therapy or transcranial magnetic stimulation. Even today, stigma continues to be a major barrier to older adults in need of mental health services.

What excited you about Rush?

When I came to Rush the Department of Psychiatry, under the leadership of Mark Pollack, MD, was recreating itself, adapting to the needs of the community while reimagining psychiatric training. There was an opportunity to work with multidisciplinary teams committed to providing excellent care to older adults and their caregivers. Working with the teams in senior care, Rush Health and Aging and most recently, the Rush Memory Clinic are opportunities unique to Rush; there’s nothing like it in Chicago.

There is a genuine sense of camaraderie ​at Rush. I’ve worked in a number of settings. This is the first place I’ve worked where people walking down a hallway acknowledge and greet each other — even when they don’t know the other person!

What are you most proud of?

I am the granddaughter of a Polish immigrant who rolled cigars in a Detroit factory and a French-Canadian immigrant who was a maid. My parents were high school graduates. Each one of these people made enormous sacrifices that allowed me to build a life that has brought me to this point.

I’m pleased with being part of the team that has built CATCH-ON, a geriatric workforce enhancement program. Teaching a basic understanding of what it means to be an older adult with multiple medical problems to an audience of physicians, nurses, young learners and clinical office staff is so important to the future of health care. I’m very excited about receiving a gift from the family of Rochelle Elstein to build and improve on the training young physicians have on end of life care for persons with dementia and/or mental illness.

What are you looking forward to most about receiving the honor?

I have been a member of the AAGP since my residency. The award that I will receive is named after a dear colleague, who taught me a great deal about fiercely advocating for good patient care. It is an honor to receive this. Seeing colleagues who, over the years, have become dear friends, is what I happily anticipate.

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