Students Seek Answers to the College Mental Health Crisis

From left to right: Faculty member Kristen Lee with students Kimberly Parkin and Thor Blanco Reynoso at the 2016 Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital Middle School Through College Mental Health and Education conference.

More than 70 percent of college students will experience at least one mental health crisis, and 65 percent of adults have high levels of anxiety at some point, according to Kristen Lee, EdD, LICSW, lead faculty member for behavioral science at the College of Professional Studies. Lifestyle-related disease and stress take a higher toll on us than infectious disease.

Two Northeastern students, Thor Blanco Reynoso and Kimberly Parkin, joined Lee during the 2016–17 school year, contributing to her research on coping with stress in healthy and constructive ways. As an outgrowth of their work, they were invited to participate in the 2016 Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital Middle School Through College Mental Health and Education conference, a prestigious event in which Lee spoke on mitigating the college mental health crisis.

The two students helped Lee prepare her conference materials and networked with attendees who might wish to work with her and other behavioral scientists at Northeastern in the future. They also had access to the full conference agenda and attended several sessions led by leaders in behavioral health and education.

For Kim, who will graduate from Northeastern in December 2017, it was a turning point. The psychology major with a concentration in neuroscience had been torn between continuing with that subject and pursuing an MD in neurology. “Perhaps one of the most rewarding moments of the conference was an epiphany of sorts, when I sat on neuropsychologist Dr. Susan Cohen’s session and realized that I wanted to pursue neuropsychology after receiving my bachelor’s degree,” Kim says. “It’s the perfect marriage of the two fields, and now I am trying to determine which route: MD/PhD or clinical neuropsychology PhD.”

Among the highlights for Thor, who graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Psychology with a minor in organizational communication in 2016 from the College of Professional Studies, was learning first-hand from the leaders in the field, including, among many others, Robert Brooks, who, he says, gave an impressive keynote speech. “I think the main takeaway was having access to knowledge and professional opportunities we never would have had.”

A Faculty-Student Collaboration

Thor and Kim began working with Lee after taking her psychology course “Stress and its Management.” Recognizing their interest in the subject, Lee invited the students to apply through the co-op program for research assistant positions, which would enable them not only to help her with her ongoing work but to conduct campus outreach, alerting students to the mental health resources the school offers. The co-op program enables students to participate in the work of a faculty member, spending 10 hours a week in his or her office and elsewhere on campus while completing corresponding coursework. After completing the first six months of her co-op assignment, Kim extended for another three months, and after his six-month co-op, Thor continued for a year as an intern, and then as a volunteer teaching assistant, with Lee.

Lee, an Associate Teaching Professor, therapist, and author of the book RESET: Make the Most of Your Stress , is an action-oriented researcher, whose work is not just a scholarly pursuit but an effort to cultivate resilience at Northeastern. Concerned about the suicides and overdoses that have taken place on college campuses, she has written for the Huffington Post and appeared on National Public Radio, hoping to shed light on the mental health crisis.

“Students wait until a point of crisis to access care, and historically, mental health services have been stigmatized and not integrated into the lifeblood of academic institutions,” says Lee, who received the College of Professional Studies’ Teaching Excellence Award in 2012 and was a finalist for the university-wide Excellence in Teaching Award in 2014.

Hands-On Learning Hits Home

Her passion has rubbed off on the students. Thor, who is from Mexico, came to Northeastern in part to have a hands-on learning experience. He was particularly interested in studying how stress affected Latino students, as well as the barriers they faced. Assigned to conduct a literature review, he found that the rates of college enrollment for Latino high school graduates have risen dramatically in recent years, but they still lag behind other minority groups in obtaining four-year degrees.

Thor searched for resilience factors that may contribute to better graduation rates and found that the continuous involvement of family is important to counterbalancing the stress, identity struggles, and depression that can occur among Latino college students.

For Thor, it was an “aha” moment: “The literature research was interesting not only for academic purposes but for my personal enrichment,” he says. “I’ve experienced some of that stress.”

Kim was interested in the effect of short-term and chronic stress response on the medial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus. She performed a literature review on how individuals experience traumatic events and the coping practices that can actually change gene expression.

“Some of those are yoga, meditation, and breath work,” Kim says. “Through these practices, you can not only alleviate stress but also increase immune system response, cardiovascular health, and energy metabolism.”

“Mindfulness has become the new kale—but it is not a fad,” Lee adds. “We want to take the best of what we know from brain science and resilience work and make sure it’s integrated into what we’re teaching and doing on campus.”

Putting Research to Immediate Use on Campus

In conducting research with Northeastern students, Lee found that some of the university’s students outside the typical 18- to 22-year age bracket have unique stressors that come from juggling family and work responsibilities in addition to being a student. “Some students, she adds, experience imposter syndrome—a feeling that someone is going to discover they don’t really belong. That disproportionately happens to women, students of color, and other under-represented groups without prior role models.”

“The idea that ‘you are your grades’ can be very unhealthy,” Lee says. She developed a behavioral model of change called RESET, for Realize. Energize. Soothe. End Unproductive Thinking, centered on cultivating meta-cognition, agility, and resilience. “Teaching students to use critical thinking to avoid falling into the performance-based trappings of our culture is vital for their growth and development,” she adds.

The students’ work has been a catalyst for the faculty who are teaching behavioral sciences to think about how teachers throughout the university, from business to engineering to leadership, can incorporate the ideas of resilience in their classrooms. Since his graduation, Thor has continued to mentor students and help them understand the mental health resources available to them.

Lee calls Kim and Thor “dynamic, brilliant, and conscious individuals,” adding that having student assistants is helpful not only for practical purposes but to keep her in touch with their perspectives. “I gained so much from them,” she says. “The opportunity to know students outside the classroom gives you the bird’s eye view on their perspective. We need to know what bolsters student wellbeing, and the co-op program gets more students involved in the conversation.”

The co-op experience opened several doors for Thor: to be a student ambassador speaker to undergraduate students at the College of Professional Studies, to attend a number of conferences, and to consider the possibility of a career in higher education. “If I had to name the one thing that made my education at Northeastern a success, it was this co-op. It was the richest experience I had.”

For Kim, the networking she did at the conference, with representatives from several hospital neuropsychology departments, led to her enrollment in a subsequent co-op experience, at Mass General Hospital and to a full-time research job offer.

Says Kim, “Everything I did with Dr. Lee has influenced me and touched me in a big way.”