University students and mental health – transcript

Ideas to Innovation - Season Two


Intro: Ideas to Innovation from Clarivate.

Neville Hobson: Among the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic is one that you might not imagine being directly connected to the state of mental health and wellbeing among university students in the United States. Students today have to deal with many challenges from coursework, relationships and adjustments to campus life, to economic strain, social injustice, mass violence and various forms of loss related to COVID-19. According to the American Psychological Association student mental health in the US is in crisis. Even before the pandemic, schools and universities faced a surge in demand for mental health care that far outpaced their capacity to deliver it. In a 2021 survey, nearly 75% of college presidents listed students’ mental health as their most pressing issue. And a report from the non-profit organization Mental Health America on the mental health picture in the US in 2023. was released during Mental Health Month in May. Key findings show that more than 10% of young people are experiencing depression that severely impairs their ability to function at school or work, at home, with family, or in their social life. Yet, amongst this bleak sounding landscape is hope and plenty of it. Welcome to Ideas to Innovation, a podcast from Clarivate. with information and insight from conversations that explore how innovation spurs incredible outcomes by passionate people in many areas of science, business, academia, technology, sport and more. I’m Neville Hobson. One example of that hope I mentioned is how stigma around mental health issues continues to drop, leading more people to seek help instead of suffering in silence. Many school leaders have started to think outside the box about how to help. Institutions across the US are embracing approaches such as group therapy, peer counselling and telehealth. They’re better equipping faculty and staff to spot and support students in distress. And they’re rethinking how to respond when a crisis occurs. Many schools are finding ways to incorporate a broader culture of wellness into their policies, systems and day-to-day campus life. I’m delighted to welcome our guest to this episode of Ideas to Innovation, Lisa O’Donnell, who is the Assistant Professor and MSW Director for the Department of Social Work at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. Hi Lisa, and welcome.

Lisa O’Donnell: Hi, thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Neville Hobson: Yeah, me too. I think we’re gonna have a very interesting conversation. So among other things, you’re an expert in bipolar disorder and severe mental illness with substantive expertise in identifying biopsychosocial predictors of quality of life and functional deficits among adolescents and adults with bipolar disorder. You bring some compelling perspectives to our conversation today. I guess I would summarize all of that by saying. So I set the scene a little. Tell us about what you do and your work at Wayne State.

Lisa O’Donnell: Sure. So as you said, I am an assistant professor at Wayne State University in the School of Social Work that’s located in Detroit, Michigan. And as of recent, I am now the director of our Masters of Social Work program. So I now have a new administrative role. A bit of my educational background is I have a, I’m licensed as a social worker. I also have a joint PhD in social work and psychology, I’ve been working as clinician close to 18 years in the state of Michigan, primarily working with adults, as you mentioned, with severe mental illness, as well as anxiety disorders and OCD-related disorders.

Neville Hobson: That’s quite a curriculum.

Lisa O’Donnell: Thanks.

Neville Hobson: So that’s great, Lisa, thank you. That helps us, I keep putting context, some of what we’re gonna be talking about here. So talking about COVID-19, the pandemic really has disrupted so much in our society, hasn’t it? Everywhere, literally everywhere in the world. I think it also highlights in the context of what we’re gonna be talking about, the need for more university students to pursue careers in mental health. There’s a lot of need for this. Can you talk about this and share your thoughts on how students and faculty started connecting more with the need for mental health services?

Lisa O’Donnell: Absolutely. So as you said, the pandemic has been hard for most people worldwide, right, when that when that occurred. We saw rates of conditions rise to levels we had never seen before, including anxiety disorders, depression, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, and a lot of substance misuse. And I think that in particular, the lives of students, teachers, faculty, people in the education system was abruptly disrupted and that led to a lot of mental health challenges. So I think that was our first point of awareness, right? That we were seeing this a lot among students, both. inside and outside of mental health programs, regardless of the area that they’re studying. I like to say that although the pandemic was quite challenging in a number of ways, it was a worldwide crisis. There were some silver linings that came out of the pandemic. And some of these, particularly around mental health, it raised our awareness of the prevalence of conditions that existed prior to the pandemic and then the rise of them, right? And increased our understanding of lived experience. It helped people understand what is it like to live with a mental health condition and that we know that research supports that Decrease the stigma in itself just greater education and lastly it highlighted the great need we have for better treatments and support. So I will say that the large gap, we learned that there was a large gap between the number of people in need of mental health services and the number of healthcare providers available. I was working at a clinic in Michigan and starting the pandemic and continuing until today, we had at times a waiting list of up to three to four hundred people on our list, people with anxiety and OCD related disorders. And it was a huge challenge. We were trying our best needs but we were really struggling. And so, but the silver lining again is we’re recognizing there is a large gap. And I think this is why we’re seeing an increase in enrollment in programs that specialize in training mental health providers. So I think this is a wonderful thing that’s happening. And if I may, I do want, on the topic of stigma, as you mentioned, it’s an area I’ve studied quite a bit. And one thing that I’m starting to really focus on, because we have a lot of stigma around mental health conditions. We know that it is improving and that’s wonderful. But one area I think in the topic of stigma that is largely unaddressed is stigma within the field. There are actually quite a few people with lived experience who are mental health providers. And I think that historically there’s been this attitude of like, well, that’s not appropriate. They shouldn’t be treating, you know, clients with conditions that’s not healthy. They can’t be effective at the work. And clearly now we’re understanding that’s not true. It’s evolving. I strongly believe that’s the opposite of the case. So I just wanna highlight the important understanding that I think people who are, you know, we’re learning have a lot of lived experience in this field and that brings a unique perspective. I think that really enhances the delivery of care.

Neville Hobson: Hmm, that’s interesting. I think the lived experience is a really key thing that you’ve mentioned. All of this, I think, suggests to me certainly that I talked at the beginning of our conversation about there is hope out there and quite a bit of it. This is in that field. This is very much in that area, it seems to me, and what you’ve outlined, particularly the combination of some things we’ve… mentioned such as decrease in stigma, but also greater awareness of what’s needed and the reality that this is a, well, crisis is the best word I can think of that you are collectively figuring out how to address it and actually actioning some of those thoughts. It also says to me as well, this is seems to, we’re talking specifically about what’s going on in the United States, but the kind of healthcare, whether it’s physical or mental, it’s kind of. challenged everywhere it seems to be. The overloads are everywhere. And what’s important is how you’re recognizing this and what you’re doing about this. It also speaks to me a lot what you’ve been saying about your kind of personal commitment to all this, your own drive behind all of this. And I noticed over the past 10 years, you’ve earned hundreds of citations. for your articles, papers and reports on mental health, psychotherapy and a lot more. There’s a website that chronicles all that, which I found. I mean, quite extraordinary. So that leads me to ask you, Lisa, tell us that says to me, your commitment is huge. Tell us what drew you into this field. What you just outlined is illustrative, requires so much skill, commitment. Other words, I could throw into the mix here, compassion, empathy, all of that. What’s your passion? in this area, what drives you in this regard? What can you share with us on this?

Lisa O’Donnell: Well, first of all, thank you for doing your homework, and I appreciate that. Well, you know, to be honest, I have lived with a mental health condition myself, with an anxiety disorder since childhood. It went undetected and untreated, which was common at the time, no fault of my family and parents, but it significantly impacted my life because… Nobody really knew what was going on and I struggled quite a bit. So like many, I was initially drawn to the field because of a personal curiosity, right? Wanting to understand my condition better, just wanting to understand sort of the state of mental health in general. But as I moved through my career, I realized the impact I could have to prevent that experience for other people. We know now through research and just through a lot of clinical work that the earlier we catch these conditions, the better the outcomes, right? So the youngest possible point where we recognize somebody is having mental health challenges is the best time to intervene. That’s something I’m very passionate about. Providing effective treatments, making sure that we are trained in the proper treatments for the particular challenges and conditions we’re working with and enhancing quality of life. I think that’s really important and just understanding that people with different lived experiences, you know, and obviously this is more than just mental health, but our topic is mental health, can have a good quality of life. And so that’s really my ultimate goal with the work is to be able to help in that area as well. I will add that, as I mentioned, I’ve been doing clinical work for a number of years. Then I went back to get my PhD, for better or worse. It’s a long haul, but I was really glad that I did because it opened up other opportunities to help with the impact I wanted to make in this field. So doing research now, so in addition to clinical work, I’m doing research in it. It’s helping do work to better understand the conditions that we have. This is still a young field. There’s still a lot we don’t know. And also just to develop better treatments, more effective treatments to help people. You know, my focus is in psychotherapy, but there’s a lot of different treatments that are evolving in this field. And then lastly, with being an administrator, being an educator, using the knowledge that we’re developing to transfer this so that we can provide better quality training, better quality education field and impact the clients that they’re passionate about. So I really feel like it’s over time. My reasons for being in the field have changed and they’ve broadened, but I’m just really grateful to be able to do this work.

Neville Hobson: Yeah, no, that’s great, that’s terrific. Okay, so let’s talk about the practicalities of supporting more university students who study mental health. We talk about the need to support those in education who require mental health care. We should also look at the other side of the coin, support for those who will provide that care to those who need it. So a few months ago in May, in fact, you were part of a discussion panel in a public webinar presented by ProQuest, that’s part of Clarivate on the role of libraries in supporting the next generation of mental health professionals and researchers. You spoke about how you’re providing assistance to both students and scholars at Wayne State. We’ve touched on quite a bit of this already. Tell us about that in the webinar. What can you share in terms of your impressions, your perceptions from the discussion you had in that panel? What key insights emerged? What about your fellow panelists? What can you tell us about your experience in that webinar that the outcomes from them?

Lisa O’Donnell: Yeah, so I was really grateful to be a part of that panel. It was a wonderfully informed group of people. including on the panel as well as the guests. And so I learned quite a bit. So the overall point of that panel really was, again, highlighting that the mental health crisis that resulted from COVID caused an unprecedented demand for mental health services globally. And there was this huge gap between the need and access. And it’s continued to widen, as I’ve mentioned earlier, that we see worldwide. my own practice. And so what I think we really took from that is what the need also… was for universities, right? That universities are now becoming better positioned to address these challenges by contributing to the knowledge in the field, filling the working pipeline, right? So we’re graduating more and more qualified practitioners to be out there, to narrow this gap a bit more. And I will say one area that is not as much in my wheelhouse, and so I really appreciated learning more about this from the panel, is the role that libraries play, right?  I think we highly underestimate the role libraries play in terms of supporting universities, right? Providing access to the right research, up-to-date research, the latest innovations, learning materials. And also, you know, as we’re talking about, there’s a lot more students with lived experience. And so this gives them free access to these same resources so they can educate themselves, but also that we can educate our students in the programs. So for me, that was probably one of my favorite takeaways of the panel.

Neville Hobson: That’s terrific. I mean, listening to what you’re saying, I’m encouraged by what you’re involved with in all the things you’ve told us about and how you see the state of affairs regarding delivering mental health support services in the US. You mentioned libraries and that’s a really interesting thing because I tend to agree with you. I think that they play a significant role in education awareness raising and providing access to the latest research and other information. So… We have the picture for today. This is wonderful. Here we are in mid 2023, and we’ve got a picture, what are we, a year, two years past the formal ending of the pandemic, although to those still suffering from COVID, like long COVID, for instance, it’s still very much there. But we’ve got that picture for today. What about tomorrow? What will this landscape, your landscape, look like 10 years from now, in 2033? So a decade ahead. That’s… crystal ball exercise perhaps, but I’m sure you’ve got some opinion, certainly some clear views in your own mind of what you see 10 years from now. Indeed, what you’d like to see even, maybe it won’t happen, but you’d like to see it. So how do you see it? What should we be expecting in the coming decade in this area?

Lisa O’Donnell: Well, I will say I’m very hopeful about the future when it comes to this topic broadly that we’ve been discussing. My hopes, my expectations are that for… are related to a number of things. I do believe that we will see this gap narrowing and eventually closing. I expect that we’ll have more mental health professionals working in the field. We’re going to have better research to support developments, so we have more effective interventions that will help people enhance quality of life and reduce symptoms and just feel better. I do expect that students of all ages in various types of programs, Again, I know we’re talking about students going into the mental health field, but if we’re thinking about students more broadly, I think that students will be better supported with knowledge and resources from their educational programs, their universities, and the library system. So they will do better in the programs, they’ll succeed, but even continuing graduation, right? So it’ll set them up for better success in their career. I do think we’ll see some more policy changes at higher level, government level. I know that since the pandemic, we saw the hiring of more social workers, more mental health professionals working at the federal level and even statewide locally. I think that provides a lot of hope in terms of broader changes. And for me, I would say that my goals are, I wanna be a part of this, all of these changes, I can’t, but as a researcher, plan to conduct further research. So I’ve started doing more research and looking specifically at our students. I used to look more at just general population people with mental health conditions. But now I’m much more interested in what are the mental health needs of our particular students in social work, right? Now that we’re understanding that there is a great need. And once we understand that, being an administrator, an educator, how do we implement these changes? Once we get the knowledge, how do we use that knowledge to make changes within the programs effectively. And also just to highlight, we’re talking about this gap, I’m a clinician, and I think it’s not just my responsibility, but a huge passion of mine to keep working in the field as a clinician, right, to do my best individually to help narrow this gap so that as many people as possible can get treatments, to get the services that they need. And lastly, I think I’m realizing this is an important area that I haven’t touched on, We’ve been seeing rapid changes in the way that we provide treatment, right, since the pandemic through technology advances. And this has really enhanced a lot of areas. It’s made our treatments more effective. I think it’s made it more affordable for a lot of people and accessible, right? We have, there’s so many populations that were particularly affected by the pandemic, right, diverse and historically marginalized. allowed these opportunities to open up for a number of people to receive treatment. And I think it’s essential for me and every provider that’s out there to stay on top of these innovations, right, as we talked about through library services, through all the information that’s out there so we can make sure we’re on top of those advances.

Neville Hobson: That’s great. That’s terrific, Lisa. You’ve concluded with a strong message of hope there for the future. I think it’s great. It’s been a pleasure discussing this significant topic with you and thank you for sharing your knowledge and insights with us.

Lisa O’Donnell: Thank you very much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

Neville Hobson: You’ve been listening to a conversation about how universities can address their community’s mental health and wellbeing and deliver on supporting student mental health with our guest Lisa O’Donnell, Assistant Professor for the Department of Social Work at Wayne State University. For information on subscriptions to mental health e-books from ProQuest, visit Mental Health. We’ll be releasing our next episode in a few weeks time. Visit for information about ideas to innovation. And for this episode, please consider sharing it with your friends and colleagues, rating us on your favorite podcast app or leaving a review. Until next time, thanks for listening.

Outro: Ideas to innovation from Clarivate.