Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber, Ph.D.
Founder and Director
Dr. Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber is a visionary scientist, humanitarian, and philanthropist with a long-standing commitment to saving lives. Her focus on preventing death by suicide and reducing the stigma associated with mental illness has brought relief to those suffering in silence around the world. Posner Gerstenhaber’s method for suicide risk assessment, commissioned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and developed by a team she led, has been transformative and contributed to what The New York Times in 2008 called “one of the most profound changes of the past 16 years to regulations governing drug development.” That change was the FDA’s decision to require drug developers to assess patients for suicidal thoughts and behaviors during clinical trials.
Posner Gerstenhaber’s Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C_SSRS) also has been adopted in thousands of public health settings, with her methods rolled out throughout the United States and worldwide — saving lives in 45 nations on six continents. The Joint Commission, which accredits and certifies nearly 21,000 healthcare organizations and programs in the U.S., advocates for C-SSRS usage. “By adopting the C-SSRS, organizations ensure that one tool is being used by all caregivers,” the commission says. “Using the same language helps all caregivers understand what the patient needs.” And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adopted the scale’s definitions.
In Israel, every schoolteacher has access to Posner Gerstenhaber’s questions for assessing suicide risk, and Anat Brunstein-Klomek, academic advisor for the Israeli Ministry of Education’s suicide prevention efforts, said Posner Gerstenhaber’s work “is not only saving millions of lives in Israel; it is literally changing the way we live our lives, breaking down barriers that have been built up over thousands of years.” Dr. Keita Franklin, director of the U.S. Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Office, called Posner Gerstenhaber’s work “nothing short of a miracle.” Alex Crosby, chief of the surveillance branch in the CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention, said the C-SSRS “is changing the paradigm in suicide risk assessment in the U.S. and worldwide.”
The C-SSRS can be delivered by all gatekeepers, enabling blanket coverage and linking of systems and ultimately fostering prevention. At Centerstone, one of the largest not-for-profit behavioral healthcare providers in the U.S, use of the C-SSRS helped reduce the suicide rate among its patients in Tennessee by 65% during the first 20 months of implementation. The C-SSRS helped the state of Utah to achieve its first decrease in the number of suicides in years and the U.S. Marine Corps to reduce its suicide rate by 22%.
Through her advocacy, Posner Gerstenhaber has changed local, national, and international policy. In June 2008, invited to speak at the European Union’s first high-level conference on mental health, she gave a presentation on ways to tackle the public health challenges posed by depression and suicide.
In 2007, Posner Gerstenhaber was recognized as the most distinguished alumna of her graduate school at Yeshiva University in the past 50 years. She received the New York State Suicide Prevention Award in 2013, the Spero Award for Excellence and Profound Commitment to Community Psychiatry in 2014, and the Anne Vanderbilt Award in 2016 for her commitment to serving children and saving lives. She has also been recognized as one of the “most influential” people in New York by New York Magazine. As an international spokesperson on suicide and depression, she has made appearances on many global media outlets, such as CNN and “World News Tonight.”
A longtime advocate of education reform, Posner Gerstenhaber is the founding chairman of the board of Turnaround for Children. She also founded The Speyer Legacy School, the first school for accelerated learners with a particular focus on high-achieving low-income students. She was named “Education Philanthropist of the Year” by AVENUE and New York Family magazines in 2010, and in 2011 received the Turnaround Impact Award from Turnaround for Children. In 2013, she was honored by Kaufman Music Center with its annual Educational Leadership Award.
Posner Gerstenhaber has a doctorate in clinical psychology from Yeshiva University and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Brown University.