College Mental Health Program Helps Students Thrive

April 17, 2013

With three daughters in college and a fourth in high school, Bob and Carroll Pierce are keenly aware of how emotionally challenging adolescence and early adulthood can be. And because parents lose the legal right to their children’s health information when they turn 18, a service like McLean’s College Mental Health Program (CMHP) resonates deeply with them.

“The program ensures that the mental health needs of our children are being addressed at a time when parents may no longer be privy to what is going on with their sons or daughters,” said Carroll, McLean National Council Member and donor to the program along with her husband, a McLean trustee. “It is very reassuring knowing that the CMHP is educating, advocating, and working on behalf of college students at a particularly vulnerable time in their lives.”

Now in its fifth year, the CMHP partners with colleges in better addressing the mental health needs of their students. With a focus on prevention, the CMHP aims to keep students’ existing issues from escalating. The program conducts trainings for colleges on issues such as suicide prevention, helps ease the transition back to campus following hospitalization, and increasingly consults with college staff to improve how they support students’ overall mental health. Patient confidentiality is always paramount.

A New Paradigm

Through the CMHP, McLean is dramatically changing how hospitals and colleges interact. “Historically, when students were admitted to an inpatient level of care, it was the responsibility of the school to inform the hospital about the special needs of their students,” said CMHP Director Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, PhD, who previously served as Associate Dean of Students at the University of Michigan. “It’s a paradigm shift for a hospital to be proactive in the process. Instead of waiting for schools to come to us, we ask if we can talk to them about their challenges and how we can work together to help students. We are even inviting them to tour McLean to see how things work here.”

Bob and Nancy Anthony, generous supporters of the CMHP through Nancy’s family foundation, the Sidney Swensrud Foundation, said they have focused much of their professional and charitable work on prevention and admire the CMHP’s emphasis on addressing students’ issues before they escalate. “Most important in my motivation to support McLean’s College Mental Health Program is the fact that three of my relatives left college in their first year due to emotional and behavioral health problems, all of which were preventable,” said Nancy.

The couple is excited about the newest phase of the CMHP’s activities: documenting the in-depth consulting work staff is doing with several colleges and creating resources that can be shared more widely.

College Mental Health Program
Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, PhD, director of the College Mental Health Program, facilitates a group discussion

“Unfortunately, most schools don’t have physical proximity to McLean,” said Bob Anthony, who serves on McLean’s National Council along with his wife. “If the College Mental Health Program can design educational modules and protocols that can be distributed elsewhere, it won’t matter which school a student attends.”

To that end, Pinder-Amaker and her staff are documenting—in written form and on video—many of the activities they are doing with schools like Amherst College, University of Massachusetts Boston, and Dean College with the idea of creating products that will eventually be downloadable from the McLean website for a fee. Examples include training modules for college staff that teach them how to engage with parents more effectively or create critical incident response teams.

“We appreciate the support of the Pierces, the Swensrud Foundation, and many other generous donors because it has given us the means to think creatively and strategically about how to reach a larger number of colleges and universities and strengthen our relationships with them in the service of students,” said Pinder-Amaker.

Fulfilling a Growing Need

Bridging the divide between psychiatric hospitals and college campuses is more important now than ever, as increasing numbers of students are experiencing mental health issues on campus. Nationwide, the number of student psychiatric hospitalizations has tripled in the past 20 years, according to Pinder-Amaker. One reason is that advances in medication and therapy have enabled students with serious mental illnesses to enroll in higher education, while in the past, they may have forgone college. Also, the growing awareness of mental health issues has encouraged more students and schools to seek assistance.

Each year, McLean cares for about 600 students from more than 200 colleges and universities in inpatient and residential programs, and many more as outpatients. Thanks to Pinder-Amaker’s efforts, the programs within the hospital where the majority of college students are treated now offer enhanced, student focused services that address their specific needs and concerns.

“No other hospital in the country sees as many college students as we do from as broad a number of institutions of higher education,” said Pinder-Amaker. “We have a responsibility to actively engage with the higher education community to provide the help students need to thrive.”

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