When Dr. Julia Burns first started her career as a psychiatrist in the early ’90s, child abuse was something nobody talked about.
Everything has changed in the field of child psychiatry since then. But 30 years ago, her approach of listening to and believing child abuse victims was groundbreaking.
“If you were a psychiatrist and you came from a lens of listening to the child and incorporating what the child said into the treatment,” Burns says, “it was pretty hostile.”
Burns’ lifelong career of helping children began well before she went to medical school. When she was a preteen, she and her mom used to drive around her hometown of Lumberton, picking children up to “teach them Sunday school and give them juice and cookies.” Lumberton had many poor neighborhoods and no social services. It wasn’t until years later that Burns realized many of these children had been desperately in need of food.
“At the time, I thought it was about teaching Sunday school,” Burns says, “but now I understand it was all about the juice and cookies.”
Burns’ father, an insurance salesman, and her mother, who worked as his office manager, taught her the importance of helping others.
“The fabric of my family growing up was to be involved in the community,” she says.
As a college senior, Burns worked at the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Hospital for a class on abnormal psychology. She became interested in how medication affected the mentally ill.
“I realized that I wouldn’t be content if I didn’t study the biological aspects of mental health,” she says.
Studying psychology at UNC, she continued to help her community by volunteering at a battered women’s shelter where she worked on call, taking women to hotel rooms so they’d have a safe place to stay. She then went to Bowman Gray Medical School, now a part of Wake Forest University, and finally did one year of graduate school at York University in Toronto.
Burns wasn’t sure what type of medicine she wanted to practice. She liked psychiatry, but knew there existed a stigma that it was a “lesser” science.
“I didn’t want to go to school until I was 35 and then have no one ever get that I was a real doctor,” Burns says.
She finally chose to specialize in psychiatry after a general practitioner advised her that if she really cared about talking to her patients, psychiatry was the best field.
After school, Burns met her husband, Andy, a financial adviser. He says he knew from the day he met her that he wanted to marry her.
“I went to an all-male college right next to an all-female college full of the liberated ’60s type,” he says, “so I had been trained for four years to appreciate smart, independent, career-minded women. And that’s definitely what she was.”
She worked for one year on a study of child mental disorders in Virginia, where she tracked pairs of twins to determine how much of a specific disorder was genetic. Then, in 1992, her husband’s job caused them to relocate to Clinton, New York. Burns, a Southerner her entire life, was out of her element.
“The climate was terrible,” she says. “It had more rain than Seattle and more snow than Buffalo. And you couldn’t even get an iced tea up there.”
It was here that she began her work with child abuse victims. She became the medical director and staff psychiatrist at a private, nonprofit child welfare agency.
“On so many counts, I didn’t fit in,” Burns says. “I didn’t talk right. I didn’t eat right. I was female. And when I sat down with the children and they told me their stories, I believed them.”
Diana Durso, a therapist at the child welfare agency who became a lifelong friend of Burns’, says that she was a “different breed” of doctor.
“She wasn’t afraid to speak her mind or say what she thought was necessary for the kids to be successful,” Durso says. “There weren’t a lot of child psychiatrists around who were that great. And she was better than great.”
Working with emotionally disturbed children took its toll. Burns says that listening to their stories of abuse was traumatic, especially because she had three young children of her own at the time. Her youngest son, Owen, 27, remembers that once in his early childhood, his mom read in the paper that one of her clients had been killed. She broke down sobbing.
“You can’t differentiate your work from your real life when it’s something that serious,” he says. But despite how emotionally taxing her job was, he says his mom was very supportive and always there for him.
In 2007, Burns’ husband set out to start his own financial management firm, which, with her encouragement, he opened in Chapel Hill. She was delighted to be back in the South again.
Today, she runs a private practice out of her own home, where she lives with her husband and her dog, a schnoodle named Paddington. All three of her children have graduated college. In addition to seeing patients at her private practice, Burns enjoys painting and writing poetry. She’s currently writing a memoir, My Record is True, about her experiences working with abused children.
Although Burns has listened to countless stories of horrific abuse, she has a positive outlook on human nature. She believes that everybody is “genetically wired to ascend and to heal.” And her favorite thing about her work is her patients.
“I’ve been doing this for 35 years,” she says, “and every week I learn something from them.”