Damion Grasso, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.
Grasso became interested in psychology as an undergraduate student at Skidmore College in New York, where he had the opportunity to intern at a pediatric psychiatric hospital and become involved in cognitive research. He fell in love with both aspects of psychology—helping individuals struggling with mental health problems, as well as advancing psychological science. “I was moved by the idea that psychological research might lead to solutions for helping kids facing significant adversity and mental health challenges,” says Grasso.
After completing a master’s degree at Wesleyan University, Grasso became involved in research at Yale University, where he was part of a team investigating risk and resilience in maltreated children placed in foster care. This experience inspired him to pursue a clinical and research career focused on childhood adversity, resilience, and developmental psychopathology.
Grasso continued as a doctoral student at the University of Delaware, where he became proficient in neurophysiological methodology for studying event-related brain potentials (ERPs, electrical activation of brain regions when processing stimuli) and autonomic functioning (the nervous system’s response to external stimuli; e.g., heart rate). He designed a dissertation study to look at differences in ERPs and autonomic reactions to threat-related stimuli in children with and without posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This work aligned with other research suggesting that some children are more sensitive to threat stimuli and have a harder time “turning off” the stress response once it has been triggered. “The neat thing about ERPs is that you might see differences in how the brain responds to a stimulus as soon as 100 milliseconds after a picture comes online – before you even know what you’re looking at, your brain is involved in emotional processing,” says Grasso.
Grasso also became involved in a statewide implementation of one of the most efficacious treatments for childhood PTSD called Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT). This experience and interest persisted into his predoctoral internship and a large component of his current research and clinical interests center on trauma-specific psychotherapy techniques for treating children and adolescents impacted by trauma and violence. These therapies are now provided through the UConn Health child and adolescent outpatient psychiatry clinic, where Grasso sees patients and supervises predoctoral interns.
Grasso also co-leads the Family Adversity and Resilience Research (FARR) program where he and Dr. Margaret Briggs-Gowan are PIs of two large federally funded projects. The Adaptation and Resilience in Childhood Study (ARCS) seeks to gain insight into mechanisms that influence whether young children exposed to family violence go on to develop psychopathology (or not). The Parenting Infants in the Pandemic Study (PIPS), builds on work that Grasso, Briggs-Gowan and colleagues began in 2020 to quantify and understand pandemic-related adversity and how different types of experiences have impacted family functioning, especially among highly vulnerable families.
Outside of work, Grasso operates the Youth Excellence Project (YEP), a volunteer-run youth program that combines outdoor recreation and mentorship to promote resilience in male teens who have faced significant life challenges, such as adversity, maltreatment, loss, or mental health impairments. “Immersing youth in nature helps them to let go of their day-to-day stressors and unplug from the many distractions that prevent them from self-reflection and emotional growth. I have seen so much growth in these kids – many of whom I have kept in touch with over the years, into their adulthood,” he says.
Involvement with CSCH
Grasso is excited to serve on the steering committee for CSCH, acknowledging the role that schools can play in helping children impacted by adversity or struggling with mental health issues. “For kids facing adversity or violence at home or in their communities, schools can be a respite and a place to form protective relationships with healthy adult role models and mentors. Kids spend a significant amount of their young lives in school – and this offers opportunities for teachers, counselors, coaches, mentors, and other helpers to interrupt unhealthy patterns and make a real difference in a child’s life.”
Grasso and his family enjoy hiking, camping, and paddling with their pet dogs and rabbits. He also loves to get his family involved in community projects.
Undergraduate Researcher Jannell Brown interviewed Dr. Grasso and wrote this profile.