VIP: Inside Dr. Prieto’s Mind
“A generation ago, if you were mentally ill it had a much heavier weight to it. At least now it feels like there is much more space for [mental illness]. Back then it meant you really were in the margins, so that mattered to me a lot,” said Upper School Psychologist Carlos Prieto.
Growing up in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in Washington Heights after immigrating with his parents and two brothers from Colombia at age four, Dr. Prieto has seen the impact of mental illness both in his old neighborhood and in hospital wards.
“In my neighborhood there was a lot of untreated mental illness. There [were] a lot of sad things you see, which make you realize that so many people don’t have the services they need,” said Dr. Prieto.
Dr. Prieto maintains that one of the harder things about his job is seeing people who don’t have the resources to get good treatment. Both in his old neighborhood and across the country, between 20 and 30 million people are uninsured and can not get access to the health care they need. Dr. Prieto explained that the consequences of coming in a year late results in very different outcomes. His passion for the mentally ill has resulted in years of work in the field of psychology.
“[Dr. Prieto] plays a very active job but not in a big showy kind of way, and I think that’s helpful,” said Tory Lacy. “It shouldn’t be about the person but rather about the work, and people know that he’s accessible. He has an unassuming quality that makes him approachable but still known.”
Ever since he was a young boy, Dr. Prieto was interested in the intricacies of the human brain and why people act a certain way. At age 17, he got a job working at Bellevue Hospital as an assistant to a creative arts therapist on a children’s ward. He used art and music as a form of therapy for mentally ill children. While working on that ward, he was exposed to the realities of mental illness, and ever since he has dedicated his life to helping the mentally ill.
“I was always curious about why people did things and why they would be acting how they did,” he said.
In college, Dr. Prieto majored in psychology and minored in philosophy. He then earned his PHD in clinical psychology and did his postdocs in neuropsychology. His postdocs were spent at NYU Bellevue Hospital where he worked on an epilepsy and brain injury ward. Since finishing his studies, Dr. Prieto has worked in a number of hospitals on inpatient and outpatient wards and in psychiatric emergency rooms.
“I’ve never been rattled by being in hospitals where other people might be. I realized that it was a very good profession for me, because I was very interested in it and very compassionate about people who are mentally ill,” said Dr. Prieto
After spending his earlier years working in often intense situations, Dr. Prieto came to Packer for a more relaxed environment after he and his wife had their eldest child, Matteo Prieto (‘18).
Moving to Packer was a big adjustment, but it was an overall much healthier population than where he’d been working before. Matteo graduates next year, but Dr. Prieto isn’t sure how long he’ll be working at Packer.
“He cares a lot. When I go to him, I don’t have to explain things to him,” said Mr. Lacy. “He is super perceptive and aware of things that are going on, and sometimes I wonder how is he able to pull that off.”
“[There are ] many days when nothing terrible happens, but when something bad happens I feel pretty prepared to deal with it having worked in hospitals for so long,” said Dr. Prieto.
Dr. Prieto attributes a lot of his and his brother’s successes to his mother. He speaks fondly of moments with his two younger brothers and parents, but he cites his mother as a motivating force for him and his brothers.
“I think that in Colombia [my mom] was middle class, and she knew the value of education, so when she came here she didn’t know English, and there was that automatic drop in status. It became about survival, but she always knew the value of education. We were lucky,” said Dr. Prieto.
Although Dr. Prieto says that many of his close friends didn’t finish high school, he and his brothers graduated and all became professionals. His drive and passion has not seemed to falter since he began his work at 17.