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In Memoriam: Michael J. Sernyak, MD, 1961-2024

May 28, 2024

Michael J. Sernyak, MD, professor of psychiatry, deputy chair for State Affairs, and deputy chair for Clinical Affairs for the Department of Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, as well as CEO of the Connecticut Mental Health Center (CMHC) of the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. died on Saturday, May 25, 2024. He was 62. Sernyak was dedicated to the treatment of chronically ill patients and a strong advocate for their overall health and wellness. He worked tirelessly to foster collaborations throughout the community to improve access to healthy food and lifestyles and had deeply rooted values that infused his approach to psychiatry and leadership.

Sernyak arrived at Yale for psychiatry residency training in 1987, having graduated from Amherst College and Jefferson Medical College. After joining the faculty in 1991, Michael rose through the ranks, achieving professorship in 2003. He aimed to advance the treatment of chronically ill patients. He began his career at CMHC, where he was chief of the Psychosis Studies and Treatment Unit and the Refractory Treatment Unit and associate director of the CMHC Inpatient Division. In these programs, he brought clozapine treatment to CMHC.

In 1996, he moved to the VA Connecticut Healthcare System (VACHS), where he was director of the Neuropsychiatry Firm. In 2000, he assumed the leadership of Psychiatry and the Mental Health Service Line in VACHS. He also became associate director of the VISN1 Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Center. As chief of psychiatry, Sernyak built an outstanding faculty team, promoted the educational mission, and supported research.

In some ways, Sernyak fully realized his vision for psychiatry when he assumed the roles of deputy chair for State Affairs and CEO of CMHC in 2009. There he supported the building of novel programs that fostered new ways of engaging community members, including the introduction of “Street Psychiatry” and the COMPASS Program. He built strong relationships with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, the Office of the Mayor of New Haven, and other stakeholders. With Jeanne Steiner, DO, professor of psychiatry, he created a public psychiatry fellowship program, which grew to one of the leading programs of its kind in the country.

Sernyak advocated improving mental health in the context of enhancing overall health. For example, he was committed to advancing healthy diets. Because of the limited access of many CMHC clients to sources of healthy food, he regularly converted the CMHC parking lot into a farmers market. He also promoted healthy lifestyles. He was an avid bicyclist, bicycle racer, and fan of the sport. He advocated for the establishment of bicycle lanes on New Haven roads, provided access to bicycles to several people, and enjoyed riding with friends and colleagues.

He received several honors including the Chairman’s Award and the Fleck Award from the Department of Psychiatry. These awards recognized his leadership of clinical innovation.

Within the Department of Psychiatry, he was on the steering committee and community subcommittee of the department’s Anti-Racism Task Force. He also was on the Medical School Admissions Committee. Dr. Veronica Chiang, assistant dean for Admissions described him as a “pillar” of this committee.

In addition to cycling, Sernyak was a history buff, an avid University of Michigan football booster, a sports car aficionado, a Formula 1 fan, and a leading expert on the merits of the Philadelphia pretzel.

After receiving his cancer diagnosis, with the support of his family, he courageously engaged in his treatment. He was consistently upbeat and forward looking. He made the most of his time, including enjoying drives in his sports car.

Sernyak is survived by his wife, Ismene Petrakis, MD, professor and deputy chair for Veterans Affairs for the Department of Psychiatry, his son, Alexander, and his daughter, Zoe. He is also survived by his brother, Patrick Mattson (Ann).

Submitted by Robert Forman on May 28, 2024