People have a love-hate relationship with alcohol. This ambivalence plays out on the societal scale in the United States where every Sunday brings a clash between chaste blue laws and Pabst Blue Ribbon. In her career as an addiction psychologist, Kate Carey has taken a keen interest in how social context and personal predisposition can sometimes blend to lead people — especially young ones — to drink too much.
“My background is in individual or small-group interventions, however it is hard to work in the area of alcohol abuse prevention without being aware that the environment is incredibly powerful,” said Carey, professor of behavioral and social sciences. “It’s also hard to work with adolescents and young adults without becoming aware that social norms and the peer context are incredibly important.
“Sometimes we find that the social influences and environmental factors almost drown out the individual predictors of drinking behavior,” she said. “One of my interests is to look at the relative contributions of the personal factors and then how those interact with a social environment that says, for example, every freshman has to have a fake ID to go to the bars.”
In other words, despite songs about drinking alone, alcohol abuse is very much a public phenomenon. It’s therefore no coincidence that in coming to Brown from Syracuse, Carey is also making the move from a department of psychology to a program in public health.
That’s not to say that Carey comes to Brown site unseen. For one thing, she’s collaborated with researchers in the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies including Peter Monti, Nancy Barnett, and Brian Borsari, an associate professor (research), whom she mentored for his doctorate at Syracuse in 2003.
Carey’s history with Brown runs even deeper. After she earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Vanderbilt in 1985, she began a yearlong postdoctoral fellowship at Brown. In a literal sense, at least, Brown launched her professional career.
“It was an impactful year,” she said.
Coming back to Brown allows Carey to join the center she has long admired on a full-time and fully immersed basis. One can accomplish a lot in a long-distance collaboration these days, she said, but there are still real advantages to being able to poke one’s head into the open door of a colleague. Ideas and new directions sometimes flow from a casual conversation while waiting for a routine meeting to start.
Brown’s strong concentration of colleagues who study addiction was also a big draw. She could do good work at Syracuse, but there wasn’t the same critical mass of colleagues in this area.
That’s important because while Carey’s research places a strong emphasis on developing and testing motivational interventions to help college students manage their drinking, she has several interests in the broader area of unhealthy behavior.
In one area of inquiry, for example, she looks at how young adolescents develop risky health behaviors. In another, she examines how alcohol abuse often co-occurs with risky sexual behaviors and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
“That particular theme has played out in collaborations with colleagues who look at patients in STD clinics,” Carey said. “When intervening with STD risk and trying to develop interventions to reduce that, how do you work in motivational enhancement factors and how do you acknowledge that alcohol and substance abuse is often very closely aligned to those situations?”
Her interest in alcohol, sex and HIV is literally global in its expanse. In collaboration with a colleague at the University of Connecticut, she is also studying how a combination of personal and community cues can help patrons of shebeens, or informal drinking spots in South Africa, resist risky sex. That’s a vital service in a country where almost one in five adults is HIV-positive.
Although Carey is willing to go far and wide to follow her research interests, she doesn’t even need to leave home to find a close collaborator. Her husband Michael is also in the field. While Kate set up shop this summer at 121 South Main Street, Michael was moving into his new office at The Miriam Hospital, where he is the new director of the Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine. He holds an appointment as professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown.
Kate said the couple recently went back to visit the old apartment they rented together in Providence when Michael was a clinical psychology intern and she was a postdoc.
They elected not to revive that lease, but in coming back to Providence they’ll begin a new chapter in their efforts to help people avoid overindulgence in a culture that sends mixed signals about when to say when.