Graduate Psychology Student Overcomes Personal Struggles to Pursue Career as Clinical Psychologist

By Tom McLaughlin

David Sherrell vividly remembers being in the throes of addiction – even if he hadn’t realized it at the time.

Sherrell and his fiancée, Christine

“I was in my early 20s, away at college for the first time, and feeling entitled to party and relax,” recalls the graduating Rutgers University–Camden graduate psychology student. “Alcohol was just a harmless, social lubricant – or so I thought – and I didn’t see the consequences of what I was doing until it was too late.”

With his family by his side, the Los Angeles native would eventually face his problems head on and take the long, arduous road to recovery. But perseverance wasn’t enough. Sherrell sought to understand how adolescents who faced similar adversities that he did as a child could avoid the same pitfalls.

Today, the Rutgers–Camden graduate psychology student uses his own triumph over tragedy to inform his research into the links between pain experienced in adolescence and the later risk of alcohol and drug use.

“The seed of my research came out of my own rehabilitation treatment,” says the Philadelphia resident.

As Sherrell explains, in emerging from a never-ending cycle of denials, he pondered the challenges that he had endured in his youth which may have contributed to his struggles – particularly his bouts with sickle cell disease, a hereditary red blood cell disorder that causes, among other things, debilitating chronic pain.

Through discussions with an addiction specialist, he began to understand how his overuse of painkillers could have altered his brain chemistry, making it more difficult for receptors in his brain to assess pain, as well as determine the relief that he was getting.

“Taking painkillers frequently created a pathway and, as dependency grew, I began to take other drugs well,” he says. “I wanted to study the correlation between the frequency of pain that adolescents experience and the frequency of substance abuse in emerging adulthood.”

In 2009, following a successful recovery, Sherrell began visiting middle schools and high schools throughout the world as a substance abuse prevention specialist for global non-profit FCD Prevention Works. He routinely shared his personal story, as well as evidence-based knowledge of the root causes of addiction, and what makes adolescents an especially vulnerable population. He also consulted with host schools to construct effective policies and procedures appropriate for handling various substance-abuse situations.

The Rutgers–Camden graduate student recalls that, as he got used to speaking in general terms about substance abuse and the associated risk factors involved, he became increasingly interested in the role that individual aspects, such as age, gender, and family history, might play.

Although he was content and considering a long-term career in his position, Sherrell gave in to the constant prodding of family and friends, who convinced him to continue his studies and pursue a career in research.

“I was actually negative about it at first, but fortunately I had good mentors who knew me and knew how important it was for me to get back on the path that I was on,” he says.

Sherrell graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in clinical psychology from the University of Phoenix in 2013. He then set his sights on finding a university that offered personalized attention to its students, as well as much-needed, hands-on research experience that would prepare him for his long-range goal of earning a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.

At Rutgers–Camden, he pleasantly found so much more than he had expected. His professors, he notes, helped him to view his personal challenges and the ability to overcome them as an impetus for his research, as well as the fuel to pursue a doctorate in medical clinical psychology.

“I was able to strengthen my pursuit of a doctoral program in a way that was also intrinsically fulfilling,” says Sherrell, who presented his research at the American Public Health Association Annual Meeting in Chicago in November 2015. “I was expecting to benefit from my research methods class, but what I got from every professor in my department was a strong sense of the ins and outs of graduate education in psychology. They really listened to my research interests, helped me refine them, and made suggestions to where I should apply.”

Sherrell – who now works as a manager, training other substance abuse prevention specialists, at FCD – ultimately hopes to be a clinical psychologist on a hospital staff, where he can offer his insight and guidance to adolescents facing similar adversities as he did.

Looking back now, he says, he feels “very fortunate” to have arrived at his current station in life. In addition to celebrating his graduation from Rutgers–Camden, he and his fiancée, Christine, plan to marry at the end of May.

It is also personally fulfilling, he adds, knowing he can be the voice of reason and guidance for adolescents that he could have used in his youth.

“It brings a sense of purpose and peace to know that, when I look back on the needs that I did not meet for myself,” he says, “I will still be a part of making sure those needs are met for others.”

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