An aspiring pediatric psychiatrist or neurologist (he hasn’t decided yet), Sam Burnim’s courses at Bowdoin have been dominated by science. He says he’s taken every biochemistry class he “could get his hands on.”
Outside of class, Burnim has devoted much of his free time to helping kids, particularly children with disabilities. Since his sophomore year, he has led Bear Buddies, a Bowdoin student group that mentors local children with disabilities. (As a McKeen fellow, he’s also coordinated all the other student mentoring groups on campus.) He’s driven to this type of service, he says, in part to ease the burden on families, even if that’s just providing a few hours of childcare to give a parent the chance to run errands.
Burnim’s first exposure to the challenges of raising a cognitively challenged child came when, as a teenager, he worked as a personal care assistant for a young cousin with global brain damage. “One of the things that has become very clear to me through my work with children with mental health and cognitive disabilities is the huge burden this places on the family,” Burnim said. A child with high needs in the United States may have several healthcare providers, and families can find themselves shuttling them from one specialist to the next.
Burnim believes there’s a better way to provide healthcare. At the moment, he sees a potential model in Scotland. Over the past decade, Scotland has moved toward a community-based mental health system, which means, Burnim explains, that the principal physician or psychiatrist is more directly tied to the patient and patient’s family. This doctor, in some cases, even makes home visits to gain a deeper understanding of the patient. “Scotland is moving rapidly forward on a trajectory of providing more effective care and better networks of support for families and patients of the intellectually disabled,” Burnim said. Mental healthcare is now a part of the national dialogue, and he added, “I love that.”
Now Burnim has the opportunity to study Scotland’s health systems and public policy at the University of Edinburgh next year, in a one-year master’s program. He has been awarded a St. Andrew’s Society of the State of New York scholarship for $30,000, the first Bowdoin student to receive this prize.
Scotland would provide him “with the optimal location to study how to properly enact a more holistic, integrated model of caregiving,” one that he could possibly bring back to his practice in the United States. “I hope to be on the forefront of the psychiatric profession by being fully integrated into patients’ overall care,” he said.