ECU psychiatrist who brought mental health care to rural NC gets UNC’s top faculty honor

Dr. Sy Saeed
Dr. Sy Saeed

The UNC Board of Governors has awarded a pioneer in telepsychiatry based at East Carolina University the 2019 O. Max Gardner Award.

Dr. Sy Atezaz Saeed is chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at ECU’s Brody School of Medicine and is executive director of the Behavioral Health Service Line for Vidant Health, a non-profit hospital system whose flagship hospital, Vidant Medical Center in Greenville, serves as ECU’s teaching hospital.

Saeed also is director of the Center for Telepsychiatry at ECU and founding director of the N.C. Statewide Telepsychiatry Program, a state-funded effort through which patients presenting in the emergency rooms of 60 hospitals can get real-time psychiatric help via video conferencing. The program launched several years ago as a way to expand mental health care, especially in rural areas where providers are in short supply and patients often lack insurance or cash to pay for services.

Saeed was honored Wednesday at the final meeting of the current Board of Governors, a group that has dealt with a lot of controversy and flux in its oversight of the state’s 16 public universities.

“Health care in all of its forms is so critically important to North Carolina, and Dr. Saeed is an accomplished leader in the field of behavioral medicine,” UNC System Interim President Bill Roper said at the presentation in Chapel Hill. “His steadfast commitment to improving mental health practices, to research and to serving the greater good and people of this state exemplify the spirit of the O. Max Gardner Award.”

The award was established in former Gov. O. Max Gardner’s will in 1947 to recognize UNC system faculty who have “made the greatest contribution to the welfare of the human race.” The winner is selected by the UNC Board of Governors and receives a $30,000 stipend.

It’s the highest honor the system conveys on faculty. Saeed is the ninth ECU faculty member to receive the award, UNC said.

In a prepared video played for the board, Saeed said he grew up in Pakistan and never dreamed that the U.S. had pockets of comparable poverty until he moved to Eastern North Carolina. Saeed said he would like to see the telepsychiatry system expand so that all residents of the state have access to care.

According to his biography, Saeed graduated in 1982 from Dow Medical College and completed his residency training in psychiatry at the Illinois State Psychiatric Institute, Chicago. He is a diplomat of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is certified in psychiatric administration and management by the American Psychiatric Association. He holds a master’s in counseling and psychotherapy.

Before coming to ECU, Saeed was a professor and chair of the psychiatry and behavioral medicine department at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria.

“The Board of Governors is always proud to recognize those individuals who go above and beyond the call of duty,” UNC Board Chair Harry Smith said. “Dr. Saeed has demonstrated throughout his impressive career a dedication to service and to improving the lives of people throughout this state, nation and planet.”

During the meeting, the board welcomed its new student representative, Adam Schmidt, a senior at N.C. State University.

It also said goodbye to five outgoing members of the board: W. Louis Bissette Jr., Walter Davenport, H. Frank Grainger, Joe Knott and Ann Maxwell. Each received a resolution honoring their service to the state and to the students, faculty and staff of the university system.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer

Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.