Christy Mulligan, PsyD, assistant professor of school psychology, researches how to help young people with selective mutism and those who have sexually harmed others, specifically targeting the inequalities within our juvenile justice system.

This fall, Christy Mulligan, PsyD, joined the Gordon F. Derner School of Psychology as assistant professor of school psychology and as assistant director of the MA program. In her role, she mentors and supervises future school psychologists. She also shares her knowledge of two infrequently studied topics in youth: selective mutism, an anxiety disorder in which a person is unable to speak in certain social situations, and sexually harmful behavior. Children may engage in sexual behaviors that are harmful to others, though the reasons differ from those of adult offenders. Dr. Mulligan’s work focuses on not only evaluating and helping these young people, but looking into why many of those in the juvenile justice system are of color.

“These are areas that typically receive less attention in the field, so her expertise will help our students get a more well-rounded training and strengthen our school psychology program,” said Jacques Barber, PhD, dean of the Derner School.

Students Set Up to Fail

Dr. Mulligan became interested in working with sexually harmful youth while doing a clinical internship in a yearlong forensic rotation. She was providing group therapy and conducting psychological evaluations of children ages eight through 17 who are considered sexually harmful toward others. They were mandated to attend through the juvenile justice system. Dr. Mulligan was troubled by her observation that all the youth she was working with, who came from all five boroughs of New York City, were Black and brown.

“In the literature, it’s very clear that Black and brown children do not have a higher rate of offending than white children,” Dr. Mulligan said. “So it was very telling who they were selecting to put into our juvenile system and who may have just gotten outpatient treatment without a juvenile record.”

Her evaluations showed that almost every child had poor academic skills and that they usually came from disenfranchised schools—which made her conclude they were set up to fail.

“As a result, a strong passion of mine is just overall social justice for minority children in our public school systems and what happens to them as adults, because we know reading skills are highly correlated to our incarceration rates,” she said. “I don’t believe a child fails a school. I believe a school fails a child.”

A Low-Incidence Disorder on the Rise

Her other interest, selective mutism, began when a family member was diagnosed. At the time, Dr. Mulligan was a first-year school psychologist who had never heard the term. She started doing research and attending conferences and met Elisa Shipon, DO, of the Selective Mutism, Anxiety & Related Disorders Treatment Center in Pennsylvania, for whom she did evaluations with her entire database of selectively mute children. Dr. Mulligan wrote her dissertation on the topic and believes, to date, she has the largest archive data and international study of selectively mute children.

“I developed a scale and ended up distinguishing different subtypes of the disorder through a cluster analysis,” she said. “Not all selectively mute children are the same; it’s a heterogeneous type of disorder, but the subtypes that we found were an oppositional defiant subtype and sensory subtype.”

Noting that while selective mutism is a low-incidence disorder, typically a school psychologist will come into contact with a child with it in their career, which is why Dr. Mulligan discusses it in her classes. “And it actually has been rising in prevalence probably because it is anxiety based and we live in a very anxious world, especially since COVID,” she said.

Mentoring Students in Person and Online

Beyond the classroom, Dr. Mulligan’s primary role is to coordinate the application to renew the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) accreditation of the MA program for 2023. She’s also active in mentoring and supervising students.

“I particularly love helping students create a permanent mark of scholarship, either through presenting or publishing,” she said. “I also strongly encourage students to become involved in their state and national school psychology organizations. These experiences can promote tremendous growth and exposure to other professionals in the field who can be invaluable as continued mentors.”

Dr. Mulligan said the future of the Derner program includes online learning, “especially because I only teach graduate students who are doing practicums and internships and are very busy,” she said. “Building potentially more of an online presence would be a positive direction for us to move into.”

She said she considers herself a collegial person, noting that “I have lots of ideas and a lot of enthusiasm and I want to reach across to my colleagues in the clinical program and mental health counseling and just be as collegial and collaborative as possible.”

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