Melinda S. Kavanaugh, PhD, LCSW

Associate Professor
Social Work

Dr. Melinda S. Kavanaugh earned her Ph.D. in social welfare at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds an MSW and an LCSW with clinical experience across health care settings and populations. Dr. Kavanaugh’s area of clinical expertise addresses patients with neurological disorders, including Huntington’s disease and ALS, and the complex care provided by their family caregivers. Based on her clinical experience, Dr. Kavanaugh’s primary research area focuses on an isolated population of caregivers - children and teens (“youth caregivers/young carers”).

Dr. Kavanaugh is particularly interested in how being a young carer influences physical and psychological well-being, and family interaction. Her translational research informs the development of targeted caregiving interventions, which include educational and supportive interventions, with the goal of increasing health literacy, caregiving knowledge, and skill in young caregivers. Through a focus on the interplay between parental health, care access, cost of care, and reliance on young caregivers, her research also addresses the gaps in state and national caregiving policy that exclude youth under the age of 18.

Dr. Kavanaugh conducts research in the United States and South Africa, working with families affected by neurological disorders including ALS, Huntington’s Disease, and Alzheimer’s. Results of her national study of ALS caregiving youth in the U.S. are being used to develop national educational and caregiving materials for families with ALS. In the Milwaukee community, Dr. Kavanaugh works with the United Community Center and the Medical College of Wisconsin as part of a Latino Alzheimer’s collaborative addressing family dementia caregivers, cultural aspects of caregiving, and school-based interventions for Latino youth caregivers.

In addition to her work with youth caregivers, Dr. Kavanaugh studies the role of social work in health care and the collaborative relationship between social work and other allied health professions. Based on these collaborations, she has developed inter-professional training programs targeting hospital care and discharge among health professions.

Dr. Kavanaugh serves as the social work faculty mentor as part of the Maternal Child Health Training grant in collaboration with the College of Health Sciences, College of Nursing, and the Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health.

Dr. Kavanaugh teaches Social Work 705, Individual Behavior in the Social Environment, and SW 811, Advanced Practice in Health Care settings in the MSW program. She also teaches a BSSW course, Social Work 591, Introduction to Social Work in Health Care Settings.

Dr. Kavanaugh's Research Page


  • Ph.D., Social Welfare, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • MSW, The Brown School of Social Work, Washington University in St. Louis
  • BFA, Boston University

Professional Interests:

  • Caregiver health literacy
  • Cultural implications of caregiving
  • Youth caregivers/young carers
  • Impact of chronic illness on the family
  • Social work and health care

Professional Affiliations:

  • Huntington's Study Group
  • Society for Social Work Research
  • National Association of Social Workers

Media Coverage:

Recent Publications:

  • Kavanaugh, MS., Cho, C., and Howard, M. (2019). “I just learned by observation and trial and error”: Exploration of young caregiver training and knowledge in families living with rare Neurological disorders. Child and Youth Care Forum. (in press).
  • Dondaville, D., Hanson-Kahn, A., Kavanaugh, MS., Siskind, C., Fanos, J. (2018). This could be me": Exploring the impact of genetic risk for Huntington's disease young caregivers. Journal of Genetic Counseling
  • Kavanaugh, MS., Howard, M., and Banker-Horner, L. (2018). Developing multidisciplinary caregiving training programs for young caregiving in families with ALS. Social work in Health Care, 57(1),1-12. Refereed.
  • Kavanaugh, MS., Cho, C., Maeda, H., Swope, C. (2017). "I am no longer alone": Evaluation of the first North American youth camp for youth in families with Huntington's Disease. Children and Youth Service Review (in press).
  • Kavanaugh, MS., Noh, H., Zhang, L. (2016). Caregiving youth knowledge and perceptions of parental end-of-life wishes in Huntington’s Disease. Journal of Social Work in End-of-life care, 12, 348-365.
  • Kavanaugh, MS., Kalipeni, J Stamatopoulos, V. (2016). Application of the UN Convention on Rights of the Child to young carers in the United States: US policies in international context. Child Abuse Research: A South African Journal, 17(1), 68-81.
  • Kavanaugh, MS., Stamaopoulos, V., Cohen, D., & Zhang, L. (2015). Unacknowledged Caregivers: A Scoping Review of Research on Caregiving Youth in the United States. Adolescent Research Review, DOI 10.1007/s40894-015-0015-7.
  • Kavanaugh, MS., Kramer, B., Trentham-Deitz, A., & Walsh, M. (2015). Factors Contributing to Economic Burden in Lung Cancer Spousal Caregivers. Palliative and Supportive Care, 13(3), 691-700.
  • Kavanaugh, MS., Noh, H., and Studer, L (2015). “It’d be nice if someone asked me how I was doing. Like, ‘cause I will have an answer.” Exploring support needs of young carers of a parent with Huntington’s disease. Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies, 10(1), 12-25.
  • Kavanaugh, MS. (2014). Children and adolescents providing care to a parent with Huntington's disease: Disease symptoms, caregiving tasks and Young Carer well-being. Child and Youth Care Forum, 43(6), 675-690.