Leadership Perspective: Advancing Mental Health Resources

Lindsey Mortenson, MD, is U-M’s inaugural chief mental health officer (CMHO). Appointed in April 2022 as a part of a strategic realignment in Student Life to strengthen collaboration between campus mental health services for undergraduate and graduate students, Mortenson’s role aligns with the university’s commitment to a comprehensive, collaborative and inclusive approach to student mental health and success. Mortenson is a national leader in college health policy and strategy and served as the acting executive director and medical director for University Health Service before moving into the role of UHS associate executive director and CMHO. She is also a faculty member in the U-M Department of Psychiatry and sees patients in the UHS psychiatry clinic and U-M Psychiatric Emergency Services. She played a pivotal role in public-health informed initiatives during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mortenson answered several questions about mental health resources on campus, outlined how expanded mental health services enhance communities and discussed ways community members can get involved to advocate for additional mental health support.

As the University of Michigan’s inaugural Chief Mental Health Officer for Student Life, how are you advancing student mental health resources every day? Is there anything that you are particularly proud of from your first year in this role?

A large focus on my current efforts as the chief mental health officer can be divided into two broad, strategic areas.

First, my goal is to introduce our students and the broader campus community to U-M’s numerous mental health resources and tools available on and near campus, while also working with partners across campus to make it easier to find, and use, these resources. Some resources may be quite familiar to our community, such as individual and group counseling available through Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) or wellness coaching available through Wolverine Wellness. But there are many more public health-informed mental health resources that may be more helpful to an individual at a specific time that they weren’t aware existed.

Second, I’m working with colleagues in all corners of our university to increase access through adding new or expanding existing services. One achievement that I’m proud of is our partnership with Uwill, a leading student telehealth provider. We expanded access to telecounseling to all students on our Ann Arbor campus, providing access to six free counseling sessions per year from counselors in all 50 states and abroad.

Another area where we plan to expand our on-campus service is in the UHS Addiction Clinic so we can provide care and support for those with addiction and substance use concerns. Many people may silently struggle with this issue and face barriers to seeking help because of shame and secrecy. It is important to normalize help-seeking behaviors for concerns, like substance use, that have long carried stigma. 

What are some of the mental health services offered at U-M? Why are these so integral to the success of students and the entire university community? 

We are incredibly fortunate to have so many services available to our community! From on-campus and virtual resources to clinical and non-clinical support, U-M offers a wide range of mental health services to meet our people where they are. We have a distinct advantage as a top research institution with a major health system, Michigan Medicine, right next to campus. And there are very few universities that can match U-M in terms of resource quantity and proximity to where our students live, learn and gather.

One way to think about the available services at U-M is to consider our community’s mental health needs. Their specific needs at a given moment in time, and the related care we provide, exist on a spectrum, or what many of us practicing in a medical field refer to as a continuum. As chief mental health officer, one of my goals is to introduce our campus community to U-M’s robust continuum of care, and explain why it’s so much more than a model for adapting to and supporting our community’s mental health needs.  

Our interactive version of U-M’s continuum of care also serves a useful function: you can discover what resources are available based on your relationship to U-M and see what types of resources you may want to explore after taking an initial stock of your own mental health. For example, a student experiencing increased stress may first seek out self-care tools to incorporate into their daily routines. Or they may want more community-based support, which could be through a peer-to-peer program or coaching with a staff member trained in guiding and supporting students in establishing wellness goals.  

The continuum of care gives our community an entry point into all that U-M offers; you will likely find resources, tools and support you didn’t even know existed or you didn’t consider to be a part of well-being! For instance, a staff member may choose to join a Recreational Sports fitness class. That’s not a clinical resource, but physical activity contributes to our overall physical well-being.

We also are fortunate to have world-class clinical care available. For many of our students, clinical care starts in primary care or at the counseling center. We are fortunate to have incredibly talented primary care providers and counselors at U-M. If specialty care is needed a referral can be made to a range of on-campus resources–from outpatient specialty clinics like addiction, psychiatry, eating and body image concerns, and sleep, to emergency psychiatric and inpatient care.

U-M recently announced a new partnership with Uwill to expand mental health care on campus. Can you tell us about what that will look like?

Our students are already benefiting from the expanded partnership with Uwill and initial data is giving us good insight into how valuable the service is to students.

Since early March 2023, students on the Ann Arbor campus have been able to access up to six free counseling sessions per year with a licensed mental health professional. It only takes two minutes to select a counselor and an appointment time on the Uwill platform. Importantly, that includes same-day appointments.

Uwill gives students more of what they have told us they want: more choices and fewer barriers. With Uwill, students get both. Students can choose to connect through video, phone, chat or messaging. Students get to choose their provider from Uwill’s large roster of licensed mental health professionals; providers are available in all 50 states and in many countries of the world. And students can access Uwill’s teletherapy services during the day, as well as evenings, weekends and holidays.

Uwill complements existing services available through Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and helps us meet students where they are. This represents a major step forward to addressing some of the access issues that college students have experienced in recent years. 

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Why is it important to encourage more open conversations about mental health not only this month, but throughout the year?

Emotional struggles are a normal part of life. But not all of us have the words, tools and support needed to navigate all the times where we may feel isolated, depressed or anxious. Community members experiencing these emotions, even if they are aware of and know where to find available resources, may still find it challenging to seek help.

Seeing or hearing someone you respect share their mental health journey can provide the reassurance needed to take that next step for yourself. What that step looks like will vary from person to person. It could be receiving support anonymously through an online peer-to-peer community or meeting with others for group therapy. But often that step comes after hearing how and when others first took theirs.

Bringing these conversations into the open reaffirms to others that they are not alone. And that there are people and resources that can help. Mental Health Awareness Month provides a wonderful platform for elevating the importance of mental health to overall well-being, but May cannot be the only time we’re being vulnerable and sharing these stories.

At U-M, we take a holistic approach to well-being. Our model of well-being is hopefully familiar to many readers, even if they may not know what that brightly colored, pinwheel-style image is called. Each of the eight petals represent one of eight dimensions of well-being, all of which are interdependent. Significant drops in one can have ripple effects on the others.

Emotional and mental health is one of those eight dimensions, though it may be among, if not the most, stigmatized. That has lessened somewhat throughout the years, though it does not mean we have completely erased stigma around mental health. Speaking out publicly can help us continue chipping away at what remains and provide space for more people to engage.

Mounting evidence supports what many of us practicing in this space already knew to be true: mental health challenges are the No. 1 barrier to young adults thriving.

Seeking mental health support can change lives. And for some, it can save lives.

How can expanding and enhancing mental health services help our communities?

Mental health is an economic issue. A public health issue. A socioeconomic issue. An educational issue. And many more societal challenges are, if you look closer, intertwined with mental health. Simply put, mental health touches all facets of society and impacts our ability to lead enriching, fulfilling lives.  

Healthy people lead to healthy communities.  

I see a robust mental health program as an investment in the future of Michigan communities. Research shows that higher levels of educational attainment is associated with better health outcomes and more engaged students and citizens. Better mental health is associated with greater educational persistence, and higher education is associated with greater productivity and economic outcomes.

Do you have any mental health tips that you can share for community members to practice? 

While there is no one size fits all approach to mental health and well-being, one of the most persistent findings in research, and in my own personal and professional experience, is that connection is protection.

The pandemic disconnected so many of us from what helped ground us: the people and places that shaped our purpose. To some extent, technology does that also.

Many of us have now returned to our pre-pandemic routines, even as we’re still trying to rebuild what we lost during those two-plus years of isolation and social distancing. As individuals, it may be difficult to move forward as you’re still processing loss: the loss of loved ones, loss of jobs and financial security, and loss that may come in any other number of forms. As a community, we’re relearning how to come together.

Connection is protection. Be intentional in carving out time to reconnect with your people, places and purpose. If trying to do all three is overwhelming, start small. Focus your attention on one—person or place—at a time for a more manageable, and sustainable, plan of action.   

I also believe the importance of quality sleep and physical activity cannot be overstated. We are in an “always on” culture. Smart phones and 24/7 connectivity have made it even more challenging to get the quantity and quality of sleep we all need to be emotionally and cognitively resilient. Many of us are also sitting and more sedentary than ever. There is so much benefit to the brain and body to movement, from better circulation to reduced inflammation and improved mood.

What are some of the biggest opportunities for support and advocacy of mental health in Michigan?

As a psychiatrist working with young adults, I see two opportunities where support and advocacy can begin to shift the mental health landscape in Michigan.  

First, we must invest in the mental health of our youngest Michiganders. This starts in pre-K and spans through K-12. Building mental health resiliency is a little bit like going to the gym–the earlier you start and the more persistent your efforts, the more enduring and beneficial the results will be. The earlier we can give children the tools they need to be mentally healthy, the better their life trajectory will become. 

Second, we must ensure equitable access to care across the mental health service delivery continuum. On a recent shift working in the emergency room, I saw many people waiting days to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Michigan that accepted their insurance. There are similarly long waits for outpatient evaluation and treatment.

Every day without treatment represents a lower quality of life for our most vulnerable Michiganders. And while health insurance alone does not guarantee access to care, those who are uninsured and underinsured are at a greater disadvantage, and the stakes, which are often life-and-death, could not be higher. 

These are two areas where evidence-informed public policy could help remove barriers to mental health care for an entire generation of Michiganders. It’s not impossible–many states are taking action on these issues. But it will take a concerted effort, guided by a shared commitment to do better for our children and to do things differently than in the past.

Policymakers are a critically important partner in this work, though they are not the only ones with the ability to enact change. There are many opportunities for those seeking to support mental health in the state of Michigan to get involved. Many of these change efforts start with connection and conversation with others around this important but often stigmatized issue.