Department of Psychiatry Faculty Member Selected as Inaugural Stern Professor

Department of Psychiatry Faculty Member Selected as Inaugural Stern Professor

Thanks to a gift from the Stern Foundation, Silvina Tonarelli, M.D., will focus on improving mental health in the Borderland

The high standard of mental health care in El Paso can be traced back to the late husband and wife J. Edward Stern, M.D., and Helen M.C. Stern, Ph.D. They were Borderland mental health pioneers, advocating for accessibility to care and instrumental in establishing the city’s first psychiatric ward.

Today, their legacy continues with the creation of an endowed professorship in the Department of Psychiatry at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso, thanks to a generous $500,000 gift from the J. Edward and Helen M.C. Stern Foundation. TTUHSC El Paso has matched the gift for a total of $1 million. The funds, in addition to creating the professorship, will help with recruitment of faculty residents and students to the Department of Psychiatry.

Silvina Tonarelli, M.D., has been selected as the inaugural endowed professor. She is an associate professor and program director of the psychiatry residency training program and neuropsychiatric division at Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso’s Alberta clinic. She also supervises residents in the clinical liaison program at University Medical Center of El Paso.

Silvina Tonarelli, M.D., (center) is joined by Stern Foundation Vice Chair Sharon Butterworth (left) and Board Member Ginger Francis (right) on the TTUHSC El Paso campus. Dr. Tonarelli has been named the Department of Psychiatry’s inaugural endowed professor thanks to a generous gift from the Stern Foundation.

Dr. Tonarelli said she is honored to be the first recipient of the endowed professorship and is excited about what the gift means for the future of mental health care in the Borderland.

“With this type of support, we can continue increasing the awareness, prevention and treatment of mental health issues in El Paso,” said Dr. Tonarelli, who is board certified in psychiatry by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. She is also certified by the United Council for Neurologic Subspecialties in behavioral neurology and neuropsychiatry. “Thanks to the Stern Foundation, we’ll continue growing as a department and bring in more psychiatrists and projects to improve our treatment and prevention programs, which will benefit our entire region.”

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in mental health issues across the country, exacerbated by a nationwide shortage of psychiatrists. El Paso is no different, where the number of licensed psychiatrists is 5.4 per 100,000 people compared to 8 per 100,000 across the state, according to Texas Health and Human Services. El Paso County is also a designated Mental Health Professional Shortage Area. The professorship will improve the TTUHSC El Paso psychiatry training program, which will help turn that trend around. 

“At board meetings, we saw the need for psychiatrists in our community,” said Ginger Francis, a Stern Foundation board member. “We felt that the best impact we could have is to help grow the psychiatry field. We want to help future psychiatrists with their education and to encourage them to remain in El Paso once they complete their training.”

The Stern Foundation was established in 1993 by the Sterns, who spent many years practicing medicine in El Paso. They were community leaders who helped make expert mental health care more accessible to Paso del Norte residents. Stern Foundation board members strive to continue the doctors’ legacy. 

“This was our first opportunity to make a commitment of this magnitude, and we’re thrilled it’s for Dr. Tonarelli and the Department of Psychiatry at TTUHSC El Paso,” said Sharon Butterworth, Stern Foundation vice chair. “This was the best way to honor the Sterns’ wishes. Dr. J. Edward Stern was a neurologist and psychiatrist, as is Dr. Tonarelli, so this is a perfect match.”

Dr. J. Edward Stern, who earned his medical degree from Columbia University in New York City, was a founding practitioner at El Paso’s Providence Memorial Hospital, where he served for 40 years. As a board-certified psychiatrist, he was one of a group of physicians who lobbied for the first mental hospital in El Paso and helped establish the psychiatric ward at El Paso’s Providence Memorial Hospital.

“Before Dr. Stern, psychiatric patients in El Paso ended up in jail, because there were no other alternatives to care for them,” Dr. Tonarelli said. “He pushed for better mental health care in El Paso and got patients the help they needed.”

Dr. Helen M.C. Stern also led a long and rewarding career as a clinical psychologist. She was considered a leader in the diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia. She worked as a clinical psychologist with the U.S. Army and Veteran’s Administration. Later, she established a thriving clinical practice in El Paso.

“They both would be so proud of everything that’s being done at TTUHSC El Paso and the Foster School of Medicine,” Butterworth said.

Since opening in 2009, the Foster School of Medicine has improved access to all forms of health care in the Borderland. In that time, El Paso County has grown its number of direct care physicians from 844 to 1,325, a 57% increase and a direct result of having a four-year medical school in the area.

TTUHSC El Paso is the only health sciences center on the U.S.-Mexico border and serves 108 counties in West Texas that have been historically underserved. It is one of only two health sciences centers in the nation designated as Title V Hispanic-Serving Institutions, preparing the next generation of health care heroes, 48% of whom identify as Hispanic.