Alumni profile: Nicholas Uram, PsyD ’16, MAP ’10

By Adrienne Frank

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Coming of age in the early 2000’s, as war raged in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nicholas Uram, PsyD ’16, MAP ‘10 thought he might follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and enlist in the military. But after his friends began returning home from combat with mental health issues, Uram’s sense of duty led him on a different mission.

“They would often have difficulty relating to friends and family and getting back into the groove of civilian life. Some had PTSD and others just had trouble connecting with the lives they once had,” recalls Uram, who grew up in Murrysville, a small town just east of Pittsburgh. “I spent a lot time with them—it definitely sparked my interest in psychology.”

Today, as a psychologist and local recovery coordinator at the Washington, DC VA Medical Center, Uram helps former service members who are battling “a severe and persistent mental illness” like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) build healthy, meaningful lives. 

Uram has worked with the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center (PRRC) since April 2017. He takes a holistic approach to his work with veterans, about 100 to 200 of whom are on the unit’s roster at any given time.

“Too often, they’re treated as though they’re a math problem to be solved,” says Uram as he nurses a coffee on a snowy January afternoon. “We don’t just want to ‘fix’ what’s broken, we want to [nurture] what’s working.”

The VA has adopted an approach to treatment that views recovery as a journey, not a destination. This patient-centered “recovery model” has gained traction over the last ten years, becoming the gold standard of care for mental health and substance abuse issues.  

“We start out by asking [vets]: ‘What do you want to live for? What’s most important to you?’ Then we identify the barriers to that. We also look at things like spirituality, social networks, employment, coping skills, even hobbies, that will help them build a meaningful, value-centric life,” Uram says.

“We don’t pretend like their problems are just going to go away—that’s not how something like depression works. But we do try to help them realize that they’re not defined by that.”

Uram says that everyone has a baseline vulnerability and that stress—whether bringing a baby into the world or watching your buddy die in your arms—can trigger mental health issues that may have been bubbling below the surface.  

Each year, about half of America’s 18.2 million vets seek treatment at a VA facility for a variety of physical and mental ailments. Those who end up in the PRRC at the Washington center typically have 18 to 24 months of outpatient treatment ahead of them, including individual and group therapy sessions, classes, support groups, and psychiatric and social services. “We want them to get help and build a community,” Uram says.  

Most vets live on their own or with a parent, but some are homeless—a problem that’s becoming more pronounced in Washington, even as it’s declining nationwide. Uram partners with the VA’s Community Resources and Referral Center to help those without a permanent address find housing in the Capital City.

“Our vets in the greater DC area are very diverse in terms of socio-economic background, race, and gender. That brings a richness to the work that we do—but it can also bring certain challenges,” he says.

Uram has more roles at the VA—a short bike ride from the townhome he shares with wife, Chatham graduate Breanne Condon, DPT ’13—than could fit on a business card. He serves as a liaison to the Veterans Mental Health Advisory Council, helping them navigate the VA and connecting them with resources, and helps out with support groups, about ten of which are offered each day. He also advises PRRC’s peer support specialists, vets who are engaged in their own recovery and are trained to help others going through similar experiences, and supervises a team of grad students, including postdoctoral interns and fellows. “When we have a really challenging veteran or case, there’s something rewarding about working with a student and learning alongside them,” Uram says.

He also sees a handful of clients for one-on-one sessions. “I love clinical work and wish I could do more of it, but it’s nice having a smaller caseload so I can really pour myself into them.”

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A psychologist’s job is to “enter other people’s worlds and help them make sense of their strengths, as well as the challenges they’re facing,” says Mary Jo Loughran, Ph.D., director of the counseling psychology program.

She knew from the moment she met Uram in 2010 that he was up to the task. “Nick was curious, engaging, personable, warm, and a really hard worker. I could see, even as a young man, that he had all the makings of a great psychologist,” she says.

Uram says Chatham’s program—which is rooted in the science of using a patient’s strengths to remedy challenges and one of only about ten accredited Counseling Psychology PsyD programs in the country —was the perfect training ground for the VA. 

He was able to put a “military spin” on the curriculum and couple it with a post-master’s certificate in military health, a postdoctoral fellowship at the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center in 2015, and a postdoctoral fellowship at the VA in DC, which helped him land the full-time position he enjoys today.

“I like to say that Chatham was accidentally a great fit for the work I’m doing now,” he says, a warm smile spreading across his clean-shaven face. “The values and the curriculum [dovetail] perfectly with the recovery model we use with veterans. I bring the spirit of the work we were doing at Chatham to the VA every day.”

Mission accomplished.

Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2018 Recorder.

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