Dr. Jennifer “Kim” Penberthy holds the Chester F. Carlson Professorship Chair in Psychiatry & Neurobehavioral Sciences at the UVA School of Medicine. She is clinician, researcher, teacher and innovator using contemplative practices to help people who suffer from deep mental suffering, addiction, and chronic medical conditions, such as cancer and lupus. Dr. Penberthy also employs mindfulness and contemplative practices to help educate medical residents and physicians in how best to work with distressed patients while also taking care of themselves. Because of the unique nature of her work, Dr. Penberthy explains that she does not necessarily need to set aside time to meditate: “I can incorporate contemplative practices into my daily life—I’m a clinical psychologist and what that means really is being fully present in the moment, nonjudgmentally, with patients every day. It’s really a daily, hourly mindfulness practice in itself.”
An important part of Dr. Penberthy’s work at the University of Virginia School of Medicine is her research exploring the use of mindfulness and contemplative practices for patients suffering from chronic illnesses such as lupus and cancer. She developed an innovative contemplative intervention for patients living with lupus that includes their support people. This intervention is currently being piloted and tested to examine the impact not only on well-being, pain and fatigue in patients, but also the impact on their actual physiological disease process, with the hopes to significantly impact these important components. Dr. Penberthy treats patients in psychiatry and at the Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center at UVA and is invested in providing the most effective whole-person approach to treatment. “I am very invested in knowing and treating the whole person and feel strongly that this is why my clinical outcomes are so good! – I do not treat diseases – I treat people!” Dr. Penberthy applies mindfulness and acceptance based psychotherapies in patients with mental health disorders as well, seeing patients in the Outpatient Psychiatry clinics at the UVA Health System.
Dr. Penberthy uses contemplative practices as the foundation of other research as well. Her research on addiction is based on mindfulness and cognitive behavioral approaches – both empirically supported and very effective treatments. In one research project, Dr. Penberthy uses a technique to help alcoholics use a mindful focus on the present moment to combat cravings: “We know that when people addicted to alcohol are trying to quit drinking, they can begin to ruminate or experience cravings to drink which can trigger relapse behavior. We use mindfulness practices based on those of Jon Kabat-Zinn to help them cope with their cravings and avoid relapse.” In her work with those suffering from addiction, Dr. Penberthy particularly utilizes Cognitive Behavioral Analysis System of Psychotherapy (CBASP), which is an interpersonal mindfulness-based therapy that “looks at the connection between the depression and the alcohol. The idea is that depression activates the desire to run away and not be mindful—to escape, to numb out, and not have feelings. In response, people drink, and it works in the short term, but it doesn’t solve the problem. This therapy helps them be present and feel safe, to be mindfully here and present in an interpersonal setting with someone, because typically no one has helped them connect their drinking and their depression.” Dr. Penberthy’s research clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of those therapies which include a contemplative component because “none of the therapies work really well if the person is not in a mindful state. We’re trying to use mindfulness within the therapy to augment it, not supplant it.”
Dr. Penberthy is not only a clinician and researcher, but also a teacher and works with medical students and medical residents to introduce them to concrete techniques to integrate contemplative practices into their work with patients and for themselves: “When working with Fellows, residents and students, I introduce mindful-based therapies by doing some exercises when we first meet—settling in and talking about what that it is like to be present, just scanning their bodies and talking about where they are.” Preparing residents to be better physicians not only helps their future patients, but also provides tools for the students themselves: “So many of the residents coming into our program are demoralized—they’ve worked long hours, and they’re scared because they don’t know if they know enough. At the same time, they have their own issues—divorce, anxiety, depression. I like to think that these mindfulness techniques can help them as well, so they can then go forward and help other people.” Based on her own experience working with medical residents and students, Dr. Penberthy is optimistic that contemplative practices are going to become increasingly utilized throughout the University of Virginia and across the globe. She is hopeful that contemplative and mindfulness practices can help foster and grow healthy, productive individuals and thus further advancements in greater global health, equity and prosperity.
Dr. Penberthy is also interested in and committed to issues of diversity and inclusiveness, and is the Chair of Diversity for the Society of Clinical Psychology, which is a division (12) of the American Psychological Association. She is a member of the UVA School of Medicine Diversity Committee and also a member of the executive council of the Committee on Women in the UVA School of Medicine. She has researched and developed cultural adaptations of contemplative practices for minority populations as well as medical populations and is invested not only in the empircal support and efficacy of her work, but also in inclusivity and equal dissemination in her research, clinical care, and teaching.