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Psychiatrist Steers Ailing Institutions Down Path to Better Health
Psychiatric News
Volume 42 Number 17 page 6-7

Not long ago, Peter Buckley, M.D., hopped into his black Volkswagen convertible and drove a visitor across the campus of the Medical College of Georgia to show off the Department of Psychiatry's new digs.

Buckley said that he considered the new building "a very important part of my own journey, my story." Indeed, it is a tale of a psychiatrist leaving the wet, cool climate of Dublin, Ireland, and ending up in the small American city of Augusta, Ga., replete with sunshine, sultry temperatures, and the scent of magnolias.

Buckley was born in Dublin in 1962 and did his medical studies and psychiatric training at University College Dublin. In 1991, at age 29, he was doing a schizophrenia research fellowship in Dublin when, as he put it," serendipity played in." He had the opportunity to attend a schizophrenia research meeting in Tucson, Ariz., that was organized by Charles Schulz, M.D., at the time chair of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. His contact with Schulz and other American psychiatrists led to his applying for a faculty position at Case Western, which, he said, "was just brimming with intellectual excitement, as Dr. Schulz and Dr. Herbert Meltzer had brought together stellar schizophrenia investigators from all over the world."

But then he faced the challenge of obtaining a visa to work in the United States, a challenge he met successfully. And in 1992 he and his wife moved to the United States.

"From the beginning, it confirmed itself as a great opportunity," said Buckley. He ran an outpatient program, got involved in several research projects with Meltzer, and received a start-up grant from the National Alliance for Research in Schizophrenia and Affective Disorders.

Then in 1994, opportunity knocked again. Michael Hogan, Ph.D., was commissioner of Ohio's Department of Mental Health (and later headed up the President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health). Hogan believed that Ohio's public mental health system could profit from a strong relationship with Case Western University School of Medicine. He also believed that Buckley could facilitate that relationship. So Buckley was offered the job of medical director of a state psychiatric hospital in Cleveland.

"It was a really terrific opportunity in administrative experience at a relatively junior stage of my career, and I was very fortunate to have the support of Drs. Hogan and Schulz," he said.

The hospital was under a state mandate to improve its care and facilities. Buckley helped it do so. By 1998, the hospital was voted the best psychiatric hospital in Ohio by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Also between 1994 and 1998, Buckley became medical director of two more state psychiatric hospitals in the Cleveland area and rose to the rank of professor and vice chair of psychiatry at Case Western.


In 1999 serendipity was again about to touch Buckley. The Medical College of Georgia advertised that it needed someone to head its Department of Psychiatry. Buckley was interested in the position for two reasons. One was that the dean of the medical college, Darryl Kirch, M.D., had been a schizophrenia researcher and could serve as a mentor. The other reason was that the Department of Psychiatry faculty and staff had been demoralized by a scandal involving a previous chair, who had been convicted of fraud and subsequently imprisoned. Buckley reasoned that since he had helped turn around a bad situation in Ohio, he might be able to do the same in Georgia.

In 2000 he and his wife moved to Augusta. Not long after, however, something unexpected happened. The position of chair of psychiatry at University College Dublin opened, and Buckley was invited to interview for it." When I got on the plane to move to the United States," he said," I never dreamt I would have a shot at such a position. Also, it was my alma mater and such a great honor!"

Not only did he interview for the position, but he was offered it, so he and his wife had to decide whether to stay in the United States or return to Ireland.

For various reasons they decided to stay. As Buckley put it, "We had taken this journey together, and it was working for us. Also by now my wife and I had become American citizens and we had two American boys. And this astounding opportunity in Ireland was eclipsed by the even more astounding opportunities in academic psychiatry that lay in America. For example, since the United States is a vastly larger country than Ireland, the possibilities for collaboration in schizophrenia research and funding for schizophrenia research are much greater here."

So with the decision made, Buckley turned his attention to the Department of Psychiatry at the Medical College of Georgia.

First, he said, the college "decided that it needed to put some muscle behind psychiatry now that it was going to have a new chair. I found that very gratifying and an indication that I had made the right career choice. It could have been a wrong one if the medical college and hospital hadn't stepped up so well together to support us." Also, he said, department faculty and staff were delighted to finally have a new chair and were "positive and encouraging."

Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump

Although Peter Buckley, M.D., finds recruiting national talent to a small Southern city challenging, Augusta does have its amenities—for example, beautiful homes such as the one above. "Augusta is also a fantastic city to raise children in," Buckley says. 

Credit: Joan Arehart-Treichel


After that, he and his colleagues set about recruiting good residents" because on a daily basis the residents are so much the face of the department." And although the department had not traditionally filled its national match, it started to do so. "Filling the match," he explained, "was from my viewpoint not only a very important statement of how the department was doing, but a building block—in other words, if you filled the match one year, chances were you would fill it the next. And we have now filled the match six years in a row."

Then he and his colleagues reached out to medical students at the Medical College of Georgia to convince them that if they wanted to go into psychiatry, they could do their training there as opposed to moving elsewhere. And again they experienced success. "When you are doing a better job in the training of residents, and your clinical services are running better, then the environment for teaching medical students becomes better as well," he explained. "All boats rise with the same tide."

Moreover, under his leadership, the Department of Psychiatry formed partnerships with the medical college's neuroscience community, the Georgia Department of Mental Health, and the Carter Center. "The Carter Center," he said, "has turned out to be a wonderful promoter of the liaisons for our department, especially between us and the Georgia Department of Mental Health."

In 2004 Buckley received APA's Psychiatric Administration and Management Award for his success in turning the state psychiatric hospital in Cleveland and the Department of Psychiatry at the Medical College of Georgia around (Psychiatric News, December 17, 2004).

But Buckley was only getting started. He launched the Journal of Dual Diagnosis. He set out to recruit psychiatrists with national reputations to join the department faculty. Department faculty also started participating in national cooperative and federal studies of schizophrenia.

Then a year ago, Buckley said to himself: "If peer support is as important to schizophrenia patients as it seems to be, then we should be giving our residents and medical students experience with it."

This idea led to a contract with the Georgia Department of Mental Health to try out the concept of recovery in an academic medical center. Specifically, a peer-support specialist, Gareth Fenley, joined the department staff. She is training residents on how peer support can be used to promote recovery from schizophrenia—something, Buckley said, that few other residency programs are offering. Buckley and his colleagues are also planning to conduct a study to determine exactly how effective peer support is in schizophrenia recovery.

The Medical College of Georgia has recognized Buckley's success and has renovated the only historic building on campus to the tune of $1 million and designated it as the Department of Psychiatry's new home. "It is a strategic, beautiful building, and we're very excited," Buckley said." It is sort of a bricks-and-mortar yardstick that the department has done well."

Also, in addition to serving as chair of the Department of Psychiatry, Buckley has been promoted to the position of associate dean for faculty leadership and planning.

To what does 45-year-old Buckley attribute his professional success to date—luck of the Irish or some other factor? "I'm not sure," he chuckled. "America has been very good to me and to my family. I feel very fortunate, and people have been very kind. I am also most grateful for all the support and encouragement that my colleagues, both at the Medical College of Georgia and at other institutions across the country, have given me. But certainly when I see opportunities, I run with them. That is part of what I see as an immigrant to America—it's very rewarding when people seize opportunities." ▪

Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump

Although Peter Buckley, M.D., finds recruiting national talent to a small Southern city challenging, Augusta does have its amenities—for example, beautiful homes such as the one above. "Augusta is also a fantastic city to raise children in," Buckley says. 

Credit: Joan Arehart-Treichel

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