Social Medicine’s Sue Estroff receives UNC's Thomas Jefferson Award

Sue Estroff, PhD, professor of social medicine and adjunct professor of anthropology and psychiatry, has been honored by her peers with the 2018 Thomas Jefferson Award.

Social Medicine’s Sue Estroff receives UNC's Thomas Jefferson Award click to enlarge Sue Estroff, PhD

October 18, 2018

by Carleigh Gabryel

The annual Thomas Jefferson Award recognizes a UNC faculty member who, through personal influence and performance of duty in teaching, writing and scholarship, has best exemplified the ideals and objectives of Thomas Jefferson. UNC faculty members nominate candidates for the honor, which carries a cash prize; a faculty committee chooses the recipient. Chancellor Carol Folt presented the award to Sue Estroff, PhD, at a meeting of the Faculty Council last week.

“If there is a task to be done, a committee to be chaired, a report to be written, then Sue Estroff is often the faculty member that is asked to step up, and her answer is invariably yes,” wrote Social Medicine Chair Jonathan Oberlander in his nomination letter for Estroff. “Professor Estroff‘s extensive service work reflects how deeply she cares about the university, its governance, intellectual climate, and academic character.”

Professor Estroff has been a member of the campus community since joining the faculty in 1982. She has served as chair of the faculty from 2000-2003, co-chair of the UNC Academic Plan Steering Committee, chair of the Honorary Degrees and Awards Committee, and on search committees for the dean of the nursing school and chief of UNC police. Additionally, Estroff has served on the University Insurance Committee, Faculty Executive Committee, Academic Plan Implementation Committee, and the campus Appointment, Promotions and Tenure Committee.

Estroff’s research delves into sociocultural forces that influence the biographical experiences of persons with disabling chronic illnesses, such as representations of illness and identity, individual economies of disability, the impact of disability income on identity and illness trajectory, and how use of mental health or psychiatric services influences self-labeling and illness interpretations among persons with major psychiatric disorders.

“The research I do is near and dear to me because I think there is so little clarity, honesty and authenticity in public mental health,” said Estroff. “So few people have the opportunity or take the time to look beyond diagnosis and medications to see the fundamental humanity of people who live with major affective disorders. I try to support them speaking for themselves and be a trusted messenger to deliver their message for them.”

Estroff serves on the United States Medical Licensing Exam committee responsible for developing questions about behavioral health. She was principal investigator on a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to enhance the teaching of the behavioral and social sciences in medical schools. That effort led to the establishment of the national Behavioral and Social Science Consortium for Medical Education, including UNC and other prominent medical schools such as UCSF, Columbia, Brown, and Oregon Health & Science University.

Oberlander says Estroff is also an extraordinary mentor, colleague, scholar, and teacher.

“What her curriculum vitae does not show is the countless UNC students who seek Professor Estroff out for advice, help, consolation, education, and inspiration. Her office always seems to have a student in it,” Oberlander said.

Estroff said, “If I can teach students anything, I hope they learn confidence and optimism, and gain a willingness to speak up and speak out for what is right. They should understand that who they are is as important as what they know.”

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