Kenneth Wells, MD, MPH

Center Director

Kenneth B. Wells, MD, MPH, is the David Weil Endowed-Chair and Professor-in-Residence in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine and of the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Fielding School of Public Health. He is also Affiliated Adjunct Staff of the RAND Corporation. He received his M.D. from the University of California, San Francisco, and his M.P.H. from the UCLA School of Public Health, and is a graduate of the UCLA-Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholars Program. Dr. Wells, a psychiatrist and health services researcher, has led a number of far-reaching investigations into how variations in health services systems and financing affect clinical care as well as on the use of Community-Partnered Participatory Research to address disparities in access to and outcomes of services for depression. Dr. Wells is the academic Principal Investigator (PI) of Community Partners in Care (CPIC), which was initially funded by NIMH and now continues with funding from the National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) and the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute. Dr. Wells is Director of the Center for Health Services and Society of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Health Behavior and Co-Director of the California Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health at UCLA, funded by the Mental Health Services Act. Also a leader in training, Dr. Wells is Co-Director of the UCLA Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program. Dr. Wells also co-led the largest American Red Cross grant in history to support mental health recovery efforts in New Orleans post-Katrina.

Dr. Wells is an elected member of the Institute of Medicine (now National Academy of Medicine) and is former Chair of its Board for Neuroscience and Behavioral Health. He was the first recipient of the Young Investigator Award and later received the Distinguished Investigator Award of AcademyHeath. He received the Senior Health Services Research Award and later the Research Prize for lifetime achievement in research of the American Psychiatric Association as well as the 2018 Rhoda and Bernard Sarnat International Prize in Mental Health. A pioneer in applying Community-Partnered Participatory Research to behavioral health, Dr. Wells with community partner Loretta Jones as Team Leaders on behalf of the Community Partners in Care Council received the 2014 Team Science Award of the Association of Clinical and Translational Science, the 2015 Campus-Community Partnerships for Health Annual Award, and the 2015 UCLA Community Program of the Year Award. Dr. Wells founded the Media and Medicine for Communities (MMC) program at the Semel Institute, which seeks to engage diverse communities in understanding health and mental health issues through media and the arts. An active choral director and composer, his first opera, “The First Lady,” on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt was produced through MMC at UCLA in 2010. His second opera, “The Center Cannot Hold” based on the life of Elyn Saks with Dr. Saks as co-librettist, was produced at UCLA in 2016.

Prior Work:

Dr. Wells, a psychiatrist and health services researcher, began his career by leading the mental health component of the RAND Health Insurance Experiment, to determine how variations in the organization and financing of health services delivery systems affected the use and costs of mental health services and mental health outcomes of children and adults. He then led efforts to understand the impact of depression on daily functioning and to describe the quality and outcomes of care for depression, including ethnic, racial and gender-related disparities in access and outcomes, in different healthcare delivery studies, through the Medical Outcomes Study, Prospective Payment Quality of Care Study, Preferred Provider Organization Study and other efforts. Dr. Wells followed up on these findings in Partners in Care, a groundbreaking national study of implementing quality improvement programs compared to enhanced usual care for depressed primary care patients. This study showed that such efforts can improve quality of care and health status and employment outcomes over two years and reduce disparities in depression outcomes over 5-10 years. Broader patterns of disparities in mental health care were profiled through Healthcare for Communities, a mental supplement to the Community Tracking Study directed by Dr. Wells.

Current Work:

In response to evidence from these prior studies that substantial disparities in quality and outcomes of care exist and that system interventions can help reduce such disparities, Dr. Wells is now focusing on Community-Partnered Participatory Research, an approach to support equal partnership in all aspects of research with community agencies and members and academic partners, as applied to mental health disparities and efforts to improve behavioral health outcomes in under-resourced communities. This work was initially supported by the NIMH Partnered Research Center for Quality Care and the NIMH Community Partners in Care study, for which Dr. Wells has been the overall academic PI. This work continues through funding by NIMHD and PCORI as noted above. In addition, Dr. Wells is PI of a new PCORI Patient-Powered Research Network within the PCORnet clinical trial infrastructure. The project, Community and Patient Participatory Research Network (CPPRN), features Centers of Excellence in Los Angeles and New Orleans, integrating leaders from Community Partners in Care and the New Orleans REACH-NOLA and Mental Health Infrastructure and Training (MHIT) projects under Dr. Benjamin Springgate. The CPPRN also has a focus on use of community-partnered participatory research to engage ethnically and racially diverse under-resourced communities and clinical and socially vulnerable populations in comparative effectiveness research addressing their needs and preferences for care and outcomes.

Dr. Wells is actively involved in training clinicians in health services research and principles of community engagement. Dr. Wells is a Co-Director of The Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program at UCLA, and is responsible for the community partnerships and training in participatory research methods for that program. He teaches with academic and community partners a two-semester course in community engagement in health services research, designed for postdoctoral clinicians and social scientists.



Community Partners in Care

Community Partners in Care (CPIC) is a collaborative research project of community and academic partners working together to learn the best way to reduce the burden that depression places on our communities and other vulnerable populations. We work in the communities of South Los Angeles (SPA 6) and Hollywood-Metro LA (SPA 4).  CPIC was developed out of five years of collaborative work on how to address depression in our communities, on many years of prior research on how to improve depression care in primary care settings, and on extensive efforts to address health disparities through community-partnered initiatives.


The Center Cannot Hold: A Chamber Opera

The Center Cannot Hold: A Chamber Opera is a new musical work based on the memoir of the same title by Elyn Saks. Dr. Wells composed the music and is co-librettist.  The idea of developing the new opera came about after Dr. Saks, Law Professor at USC and MacArthur Award winner, served as a guest speaker for a performance of The First Lady Opera. “Let’s collaborate!” said Saks after the performance; “OK” said Wells, “A research grant or an opera?” “Both,” Saks replied.   The research grant about state variations in use of physical restraints in psychiatric hospitals was not funded; but the opera is now completed. The opera is based on a period of hospitalization in New Haven when Dr. Saks was in law school. Several different hospitalizations in different institutions with different attending physicians were consolidated into one episode to simplify the story. While largely based on the book, some scenes, particularly those about providers, are fictionalized, based in part of experiences of Wells as a medical student and psychiatry resident during roughly the same period as Saks’ New Haven hospitalizations.  The opera uses portions of the poem by William Butler Yeats of the same title, a quotation from Aristotle, and paraphrases and adapts portions of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, as the real-life Saks survived one of her terrifying experiences of hours in restraints by yelling the theme that opens this symphony.  The opera is about a significant step in the road to recovery after Saks learned early in her life that she had a severe and persistent form of mental illness, paranoid schizophrenia. Although she struggled for years with acceptance of the diagnosis and alternatively accepted and resisted medications, she eventually learned that a combination of medication and psychoanalysis helped her maintain her coping and live a rewarding life. She has lead a brilliant career and maintained a happy and loving marriage, and enjoys many friends and colleagues. The opera is not about all of those successes. This Opera, is about the first step: a turning point for a young woman facing overwhelming odds of succumbing to a devastating illness, who decides to do her best to live her life fully and ends up graduating from Yale Law School and developing a lasting friendship.


The First Lady Opera

The First Lady is an opera concerning two weeks in the life of Eleanor Roosevelt from the death of FDR to VE Day.  Music by Kenneth Wells.  Libretto by Kenneth Wells, Gayle Strauss, Rick Roudebush, and Matt Wells.  Sponsored by the UCLA Semel Institute’s Center for Health Services and Society.  “The First Lady” is a story of betrayal, growth, and resilience.  The opera was co-produced by Semel Institute and need theater and had its world premiere on February 19, 2010.

Health Care Vlogs: Medicine and the Arts – Profile on Dr. Wells
Part I






  • Carl Taube Award for Lifetime Contribution to the Field of Mental Health




  • Research Prize (Lifetime Achievement), American Psychiatric Association


  • Distinguished Fellow, American Psychiatric Association


  • National Associate (Lifetime), National Academies of Science


  • Distinguished Investigator Award, Association for Health Services Research (AcademyHealth)


  • Pfizer Visiting Professorship Award in Psychiatry


  • Exemplary Psychiatrist Award, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill
  • Emily Mumford Award for Contributions to Social Medicine, Columbia University


  • Outstanding Research Mentor, UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute


  • Distinguished Professor Award, 9th Annual Symposium on Psychiatric Medicine


  • Senior Research Scientist Award, National Institute of Mental Health


  • American Psychiatric Association Senior Investigator Award, Psychiatric Services Research


  • Nancy Roeske Award for Excellence in Teaching, American Psychiatric Association


  • Young Investigator Award, American Association of Health Services Research (first recipient)