Charmaine Higa-McMillan, Professor of Psychology

Photo above: Associate Professor Charmaine Higa-McMillan (left) with student at poster display.

Professor Higa-McMillan researches evidence-based practices for youth mental health. She specializes in anxiety and depression in, and mental health services for, children and adolescents.

Charmaine Higa-McMillan
Charmaine Higa-McMillan

Charmaine Higa-McMillan is a professor of psychology at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. She is licensed to practice as a psychologist in the state of Hawai‘i. Her current research is in the area of evidence-based practices for youth mental health. She received her bachelor of arts in psychology from UH Mānoa and her doctor of philosophy in clinical psychology from the University of Tulsa.

Anxiety and depression in children and adolescents

The first major goal of Higa-McMillan’s research examines the nature of anxiety and depression in children and adolescents and the assessment of this psychopathology. She and a group of colleagues at University of Central Florida, University of Houston, and UH Hilo were awarded a $2.66 million multisite grant from the U. S. Department of Defense to study stress and psychosocial adjustment among children and spouses of deployed service members.

“This research is unique in that it examines biological markers of stress in addition to traditional interviews and paper-and-pencil surveys,” she says. “It employs several control groups—families of non-deployed service members and civilian families with single- and two-parent households—in an attempt to isolate the effects of military deployment beyond living in a military family and living in a single parent home.”

Mental health services for children and adolescents

The second major goal of Higa-McMillan’s research program examines mental health services for children and adolescents in public mental health systems. The work includes the dissemination and implementation of treatment programs with demonstrated efficacy into community and school-based service settings, with a growing emphasis on meeting the needs of rural mental health systems.

“Despite the fact that decades of research has established that some treatment programs produce better results than others, research has also demonstrated that these programs with empirical support are not widely used by providers who serve children,” she says. Her research examines the barriers of implementing such evidence-based programs.

For example, Higa-McMillan and her colleagues have found that provider attitudes towards evidence-based practices predict use of these practices, whereas other factors such as client diagnosis and provider training and knowledge do not. She and Christopher Frueh, UH Hilo professor of psychology, recently found in a qualitative study that rural mental health providers on Hawai‘i Island experience a number of barriers to obtaining continuing education in these programs that have empirical support.

“Perhaps not surprising to those living in rural areas, common barriers included money, time, lack of quality training, and geographical barriers,” she says. “In an effort to bring trainings in evidence-based practices for youth to rural mental health providers, I am working together with PracticeWise, LLC, to develop a distance learning program, which aims to address the barriers that rural providers experience accessing such trainings.”

Mental health services and practices already in place in community settings

In addition to examining barriers to implementing evidence-based practices in community settings, Higa-McMillan also studies mental health services and practices already in place in community settings and compares these to the evidence-based literature. For instance, she and her colleagues have examined the overlap and divergence of practices for youth with anxiety and traumatic stress.

“A somewhat surprising finding is that although providers in usual care settings use a number of practices consistent with those found in the evidence-based literature,” she says, “exposure, a technique that involves direct or imagined experience with a feared stimulus, is underutilized relative to how much research has established its efficacy for youth with anxiety and traumatic stress.”

Assistant Professor Charmaine Higa-McMillan and her lab team.
Associate Professor Charmaine Higa-McMillan (center front) with her lab team (left to right) undergraduate research assistant Rianne Herrin-Brittain, and graduate research assistants Christen Zulli, Abbie Fisher, Alexander Unwin, and Emily Low.

As a follow-up to this research, a graduate student in UH Hilo’s counseling psychology master’s program—a student of Higa-McMillan and Frueh—conducted a qualitative study of providers on Hawai‘i Island to examine their usual care practices as well as their attitudes towards evidence-based practices for youth with traumatic stress. The student, in collaboration with Higa-McMillan and Frueh, presented these findings at a national conference and is currently preparing this work for publication consideration.

In addition to having a very active research lab, Higa-McMillan is dedicated to mentoring student research; nearly half of her presentations and a third of her peer-reviewed publications have included students as first or co-authors.



By Susan Enright, public information specialist, Office of the Chancellor. 

Published March 18, 2013; last update June 13, 2018.