Volunteer Spotlight

Interview with Patti van Eys

This month’s volunteer spotlight shines on Dr. Patti van Eys. Dr. van Eys is a clinical psychologist in Nashville, Tennessee. As a clinician, consultant and educator, her work serves people whose early lives were complicated by factors that challenged their developmental trajectories.

Photo of Patti van Eys

Tell us about yourself.
I am a clinical psychologist, licensed for 34 years with a niche in developmental trauma and dissociative disorders. Mostly I have served children, teens, and families in the child welfare system; however, I currently spend much of my time in prisons across the United States helping defense teams and their clients connect the dots between severely traumatic childhoods and negative adult outcomes. I am an educator at heart. My current work as a self-employed consultant leans into that passion. I enjoyed being a university professor for 17 years, and it is now my honor to integrate clinical and research data to educate judges, juries, clemency boards, and sometimes even governors!

How did you first learn about dissociation?
I learned about dissociation from my young clients. In my work in the early 1990’s at the National Children’s Advocacy Center (Huntsville, AL) and then for 10 years in my work in the Vanderbilt University Center of Excellence for Children in State Custody (2002-2012), I encountered children and teens with complex presentations that appeared to stem from early and severe maltreatment. I saw a common thread of disorganized attachment and what I believed to be dissociative symptoms.

Which experts in the field have had the greatest influence on you?
In turning to the literature, Frank Putnam and Richard Kluft’s conceptual writings about childhood dissociation were formative, and Joyanna Silberg’s edited 1996 book provided a seminal clinical understanding and practical tools to launch me into this work. I tracked down Fran Waters, one of the chapter authors in Joy’s 1996 book (before internet!). Fran became my mentor and came to Nashville Tennessee in 2009 to train me along with 60 other community therapists in a multi-day intensive. I then took the foundational ISSTD course (led by Silberg and Waters) on assessing and treating children with dissociation. That course in 2012 was a game changer. I never looked back. Helping young clients and their key adults understand and navigate developmental trauma and dissociative symptoms became my focus.

What led you to join ISSTD?
Anyone who knows Fran Waters can imagine that I had no choice but to join ISSTD, an organization that she loved and wanted to share with me. Once a member, I cannot fathom how I was not a member earlier. These are my people!

What are your volunteer roles with ISSTD, and what led you to volunteer?
My volunteer roles/duties in ISSTD include: co-chairing with Eva Young to rewrite the ISSTD best practice Child and Adolescent Guidelines to be published in 2025; teaching at ISSTD Annual Conferences (i.e., 2021, 2023, 2024); serving on the task force to develop the new course curriculum for the Child and Adolescent Professional Training Program course; participating in the Child and Adolescent Special Interest Group; and most recently serving as an elected Director on the ISSTD Board of Directors for 2024-2026. I volunteer to give and receive. I contribute what I’ve learned in the field clinically, academically, and in leadership, while furthering my self-development through working closely with ISSTD members whose areas of expertise, leadership and unique experience in the field enhance my professional and personal growth.

Why do you feel it is important for clinicians working with adults to be knowledgeable about assessment and intervention for children and adolescents?

Photo of Patti van Eys presenting on developmental trauma

I know that I’m “singing to the choir” when I emphasize the importance of developmental history. Understanding what happened to and with the child within and across developmental phases is crucial to therapeutic relationship and clinical strategy with adult clients. The importance of framing current issues and behaviors within a backdrop of the specific risk and protective factors that shaped the adult client’s current internal and external experience allows more precise attunement to the client’s needs. Foundationally, this understanding allows the attachment frame to drive the interactions most appropriately.

What are some of the system changes you would like to see to better support our young people?
I advocate for changes in the child-serving system to include more emphasis on ensuring secure attachment and solid infant mental health. We need a public health approach to primary prevention and preventive intervention. Not only should we work on thwarting child maltreatment, but we should put resources into mindful practices that facilitate secure attachment by supporting all young parents economically, socially, physically, and emotionally. I also advocate for a more holistic and compassionate approach to child mental health, remembering that all behaviors are a form of communication worthy of exploring. Not all “symptoms” map onto a medical diagnosis that medicine can treat. I’d like the child mental health system to slow down, carefully explore the child’s external and internal systems, their developmental history, and truly use a bio-psycho-social-spiritual lens before using medical labels that might be stigmatizing, obfuscating, or lead to unnecessary or harmful treatments. Finally, I’d like to see mental health curriculum in universities include a thorough understanding of developmental trauma and dissociative disorders across the lifespan.

Tell us something most of us may not know about you.

Photo of the cast of kids from the movie All the Kind Strangers. Patti is third from the right.

My brother (Tim) and I (then Patti Parkison) were in an ABC movie of the week in 1974 (age 13) called All the Kind Strangers about 7 orphaned rural kids who drew in (and imprisoned) kind, unsuspecting adults to test them out as potential new parents. I got to know several Hollywood actors such as Robby Benson (then age 18) and Stacy Keach (one of our captured parents) who were wonderful people of high integrity. I had my orthodontic metal braces removed for the filming and then replaced. I learned much about life through that experience, including what a generous orthodontist I had! I’ve always wondered if my life’s passion to work with foster and adoptive children began at that rural movie set in Lebanon, Tennessee!