College Mental Health Q&A With Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker

April 4, 2020

Established in 2008, the College Mental Health Program (CMHP) provides assessment, education, and support to students with mental illness and adjustment issues, with the goal of easing their transition to college initially and, in some cases, their return after a medical leave. The CMHP also provides consultation and education to parents and colleges—more than 200 across the country—on how to better support students’ behavioral health needs.

Find out the latest updates from the College Mental Health Program from Program Director Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, PhD.

Horizons: We’ve heard you quote the statistic that 70% of college students with mental health struggles won’t seek help. What can colleges do about that?
Dr. Pinder-Amaker: This has always been a challenge. That’s why the CMHP’s outreach to college campuses is critical. And it’s also important for schools to lower the barriers to treatment wherever possible. Some schools have moved toward a model that strategically embeds mental health services within the places where students live and learn.

More broadly, schools are adopting a campus philosophy that promoting mental health and wellness and creating a caring community is everyone’s responsibility. There’s a role for faculty, staff, and students beyond what the counseling center can provide.

College student talks during group therapy
McLean’s College Mental Health Program supports students at a time when they may need it most

Horizons: What’s new with the College Mental Health Program?
Dr. Pinder-Amaker: We are preparing to introduce a new, comprehensive, evidence-based, multiculturally informed model focusing on students’ developmental journeys from high school through college. The Wellness Initiative for Student Equity (WISE) includes a range of resources such as assessment tools, trainings, and services, to guide schools—high schools and colleges—in promoting mental health more effectively.

From a mental health perspective, the transition between high school and college is a point of vulnerability. The new model focuses on the student experience, beginning in high school and through key milestones, such as the college application and decision-making process, and how parents, students, teachers, and community members can better support students’ mental health and wellness.

Rather than just looking at how to support colleges and universities at students’ point of entry, we’re attempting to connect the two systems by focusing on the perspective of the student. Currently, there’s a lot of cross talk, with colleges saying, “We wish high schools would do this,” and high schools saying, “We wish colleges did a better job of that,” so we’re trying to address this gap with the new model.

Horizons: Where does the equity piece come in, as the model is called the Wellness Initiative for Student Equity?
Dr. Pinder-Amaker: With the WISE model, we’re trying to ensure that the tools—the trainings, services, resources, etc.—are multiculturally informed. Students bring a broad range of identities relative to gender, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, and national origin, so we need to ensure that those identities are taken into consideration.

“Bob and I think the CMHP is critically important. The transition to college is such a vulnerable time in a teenager’s life. Once a student is responsible for their own health care decisions, the parent’s role becomes secondary. Dr. Pinder-Amaker and her team are there to advocate for and support students when they need it most.”– National Council Member and CMHP donor Carroll C.D. Pierce

Horizons: CMHP has a fairly small staff and the demand for your services is high. Are there plans to scale your work?
Dr. Pinder-Amaker: Yes, that’s another aspect of the WISE model. Up until now, our bandwidth has been limited by both geography and staff size. With the new model, we’ll be able to offer lots of resources that can be accessed from anywhere. For example, there will be videos for colleges on topics such as how professors can support at-risk students and for parents and students on how to navigate hospitalization, leaves of absence, and returning to school.

We plan to host webinars, live and on-demand, on topics including how schools can recognize at-risk students. Finally, we’re creating all sorts of written materials on topics ranging from tips on identifying colleges with strong mental health supports to how colleges can better publicize their mental health resources to a diverse student population.

Horizons: What role does philanthropy play in the College Mental Health Program?
Dr. Pinder-Amaker: Every time we’ve identified a clinical need, a recurring challenge or a gap, we have received tremendous support from a number of extraordinarily generous donors. Our college readiness consultation service, which evaluates how well, from a mental health perspective, students are prepared to enroll in or return to college, is one good example of this. Without philanthropic support from donors, we could not have developed most of the critical services and resources we offer.

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