Jared Taylor, M.D., knew as a high school student that he wanted to pursue a career in health care and serve the Jackson, Mississippi community where he grew up. But little did he know that working on the Jackson Heart Study would propel him towards an unlikely career as a psychiatrist.
It might not seem like a natural trajectory, but that early experience doing research on cardiovascular disease in African Americans exposed Taylor to the broader issue of health disparities—and he says it serves him perfectly in his role now.
Taylor works at the Veterans Hospital in Jackson, and many of his patients are African American men with beliefs about mental health that can affect their ability to get better. “I’ve noticed that mental health is not taken very seriously in our community—that there’s a stigma about it,” Taylor says. “So, part of my aim as a psychiatrist is to decrease and ultimately eliminate this stigma.”
The first and often hardest step in making that happen, he says, is building a good rapport with the patient.
“For some, admitting that they have a mental illness or seeking treatment could be perceived as weakness, a lack of resilience, or [an acknowledgement] that their faith is not strong enough,” Taylor says. “I address this in initial conversations, particularly with minority patients, because it’s often extremely difficult for them to take the first step to seek care, whether it’s with a mental health provider or another physician.”
The Jackson Heart Study, he says, gave him the tools to think proactively in that way. “It taught me a lot about health disparities, which helps me to be culturally sensitive and competent when working with people of different ethnicities or who hold varying religious beliefs,” Taylor says. “It helped me understand where patients are coming from so that I can treat them in the best, most appropriate way.”
His journey started innocently enough. While studying biology at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, Taylor spent two summers at the Harvard School of Public Health conducting research on how ethnic differences influence body mass indices. Soon after graduating in 2006, he completed a one-year fellowship in the Division of Prevention and Population Sciences at NHLBI, where he worked with a small team to summarize the early findings of the Jackson Heart Study. Published as the Jackson Heart Study Data Book: A Report to the Cohort and Community, it highlights the prevalence of cardiovascular disease and risk factors among the study participants.
Along the way, Taylor developed a deep understanding of the heart, as well as rare, first-hand knowledge of statistics. “I owe all of that experience and exposure to my participation in the Jackson Heart Study,” Taylor says.
Taylor went on to get his medical degree and completed his residency at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine and Medical Center. While there he continued to conduct research about the Jackson Heart Study cohort, investigating cardiovascular disease risk factors that affect the size, shape, structure, and function of the heart.
Today, Taylor is proud to say that he is fulfilling his dream of giving back to his community, and he credits his mentors at the Jackson Heart Study for giving him the guidance—and the stepping stone—to do what he’s doing. Now, he says, it’s his turn.
“I’m paying it forward by mentoring medical students, psychiatry residents, and speaking to students at college campuses,” Taylor says. “Having mentors that can provide both professional and, to an extent, personal guidance is critical for all trainees going into health care. And, in the long run, providers who can make cultural connections can make a big difference in their communities.”