FSU Florida FIRST program hires Dr. Sherelle Harmon: A career in psychological disorder research & mental health advocacy

Emily Stewart

The NIH-funded research faculty development program, Florida FIRST, has welcomed its fifth early career assistant professor to the mental health research cohort. In the realm of psychology, Dr. Sherelle Harmon is dedicated to understanding the complexities of psychological disorders and anger dysregulation in children, and advocating for improved mental health services for the youth. Her journey is one of determination, fueled by a passion for unraveling the mysteries of the human mind and alleviating the struggles of those affected by mental illnesses.

Dr. Harmon’s career trajectory began with a spark ignited during her undergraduate years studying psychology ay Swarthmore College, outside of Philadelphia . After graduation, she began working alongside social workers at a residential treatment center and witnessed firsthand how psychopathology within familial and social contexts is interconnected. This experience laid the foundation for paving the road to obtaining her Master's in social work and a starting a career in clinical research, instilling a deep appreciation for a systemic approach to mental health intervention.

After completing her master’s degree from Columbia University, Dr. Harmon’s drive for knowledge led her to Oregon, where she worked as a research clinician on an ADHD study. It was here that her interest in mental health research began to take shape, inspired by her interaction with children struggling with the disorder. The experience opened her eyes to the complexities of psychopathology, particularly in children with ADHD, who are often presented with severe comorbidities. Intrigued by the multifaceted nature of the disorder and its associated challenges in treatment, Dr. Harmon delved deeper into understanding the underlying mechanisms shared across various psychological disorders.

"While our research focused primarily on ADHD, I also became interested in the impact of co-occurring symptoms of depression and anxiety on how they functioned emotionally and socially as well as its impact on treatment," explained Dr. Harmon.

Diving more into Dr. Harmon’s drive to understand more about the underlying mechanisms in children who came to the clinic with co-occurring symptoms who also struggled in knowing how to deal with their emotions. 

“Even with my training, there was very little guidance on how to treat kids who showed up with complex behavioral concerns from their parents. If we can identify what’s causing these symptoms to co-exist, then we can tailor more effective treatments,” stated Dr. Harmon

Working on this study allotted Dr. Harmon the time and opportunity to realize her particular interest in the transdiagnostic and overlapping nature of ADHD with other illnesses. She discovered behavior patterns that diverged across individuals, prompting her to explore the impact of comorbid conditions on treatment outcomes. This pursuit would shape her future work significantly. The decision to focus more on the transdiagnostic nature of mental illness led her to Florida State University (FSU) to pursue her Ph.D in clinical psychology and learn from faculty member Dr. Janet Kistner, who at the time focused on transdiagnostic mechanisms of children’s responses to stress and failure and childhood risk factors for development of psychopathology.

Once finishing her Ph.D., Dr. Harmon hoped to complete a post-doctoral fellowship focusing on intervention research. Fortunately, she found this opportunity at Harvard University, where she worked with Dr. John Weisz as co-director of a multisite clinical trial, testing mental health intervention for school children and adolescents. Their transdiagnostic approach helps target a broader range of disorders and can be applied to treat several disorders simultaneously.

Dr. Weisz spoke highly of their time together, highlighting her contributions and how vital her skillset and personality were to the project.

“Her organizational and management skills contributed importantly to the smooth running of the project. In addition, Sherelle’s technical skills were much better than mine, which was a big plus for the internet-related components of our work,” stated Dr. Weisz. “Sherelle is also an outgoing person with excellent social skills, and that made a very positive impression on the school administrators and clinicians with whom she worked as the face of our project.”

Considering her next steps carefully, Dr. Harmon knew she wanted to gain more experience with intervention treatment. Just like all her previous career moves, Dr. Harmon seamlessly transitioned into her next role as clinical director of the Child & Adolescent Mood & Anxiety Treatment Program (CAMAT) at the University of Miami. CAMAT peaked her interest because of the applied intervention; which targeted core mechanisms associated with the development and maintenance of the emotional disorders like anxiety and depression. Her role as clinical director sufficiently prepared her for conducting intervention treatment; however, Dr. Harmon was itching to focus solely on her research and combine the intervention aspect with some of her earlier work in ADHD.

In 2022, Dr. Harmon began collaborating as a co-investigator in Dr. Michael Kofler’s randomized control trial on ADHD in children at FSU’s psychology department. Through Koflers' program, they have been working on a youth ADHD cognitive training program to target the symptoms of ADHD.

"Dr. Michael Kofler FSU Department of Psychology"
Dr. Michael Kofler FSU Department of Psychology 

“The ultimate goal is to understand how anger functions and how it contributes to the development and maintenance of depression and anxiety for both emotional disorders, as well as better understanding how it functions concerning aggression and other more internalizing disorders, including ADHD,” explained Dr. Harmon.

With her mentor and colleague, Michael Kofler, she set out to understand ADHD and behavioral concerns in children. Their collaborative efforts helped Harmon hone in on her area of research, aiming to dissect anger regulation across various disorders, from ADHD to depression and anxiety and ultimately shedding light on the complexity of development and how treatment would be implicated.

“Sherelle’s interest in focusing on the internal factors of mood and emotions complimented the project,” stated Dr. Kofler. “She is so passionate and bright, and it really shows through her work.”

Dr. Harmon’s earlier work recognizes anger dysregulation as a significant predictor of depression and anxiety in children- an aspect that is often overlooked by clinicians who may perceive it as merely a behavioral issue. Drawing from her abundant experiences, Dr. Harmon emphasizes compassion and understanding in regulating children’s emotions, including anger dysregulation and its impact on mental well-being. Dr. Harmon aims to revolutionize treatment approaches, identifying key targets for intervention. At the heart of the research is her deep-rooted commitment to improving the well-being of children struggling with mental health.

Through the Florida FIRST program, Dr. Harmon is working to establish a youth mental health center or program at FSU’s Department of Psychology. It will provide free mental health services to children with a focus on emotion regulation and access to a range of services, including single-session interventions and school-based work. Her goal in developing tailored treatments highlights her dedication to translating her research findings into tangible interventions in children’s lives.

“She will be filling a large gap in the mental health Tallahassee community because of the focus on emotional regulation and how it affects the child’s behavior. I am very excited for her to start the center, and the community will benefit greatly from it,” said Dr. Kofler.

Dr. Harmon’s intricate nature and meaningful career path have beautifully guided and prepared her for this next stage in her career with Florida FIRST, where she will continue to grow within this research faculty position while uncovering the unknown surrounding emotional regulation in children.

“Joining the Florida FIRST program, I am most looking forward to working with researchers across the University and utilizing the resources available to do better, deeper, more meaningful work and be able to expand my work in other areas,” stated Dr. Harmon.