Penn State interns join forces to battle the stigma against mental illness

Tom Joudrey
July 23, 2020

When the coronavirus pandemic disrupted internship opportunities for students across the University this spring, Penn State alumnus Kevin Lynch moved into action, creating a host of new internship opportunities for students in the College of Health and Human Development.

Since 2016 Lynch has served as president and CEO of the Quell Foundation, an organization dedicated to normalizing conversations about mental health. When the pandemic forced Americans to retreat into social isolation, he saw the global health crisis compounding the mental health crisis in real time and knew he had to accelerate the timeline for reaching people in need.

After quickly devising an internship program, he was amazed by the response he received. “Penn State students don’t do anything by half measure,” Lynch said. “I’ve been blown away by their enthusiasm and dedication. And their compassion for the people we’re helping.”

Seven Penn State undergraduates -- all seniors and all but one of whom are majoring in Health Policy and Administration (HPA) -- took up the challenge. The experience has been a crash course in how to marshal resources to serve vulnerable populations amidst a global crisis.

The interns are collaborating to move several interrelated projects through the pipeline. Nick Lee documented the mental fatigue being experienced by frontline medical workers during the pandemic and researched avenues for producing a podcast that could reach health care personnel.

Intern support has also allowed the foundation to extend its public outreach. Colleen Lowe was initially tasked with reaching the public by writing op-ed pieces, but her portfolio expanded as she stepped in to conduct essential research on ongoing projects. Justin Schatz, in turn, drew on Lowe’s research to write grant proposals alongside the foundation’s executive director.

Jessica Ripper and Caitlyn Spurlock pursued the foundation’s most ambitious new initiative. The limited number of funded residency spaces for degrees in mental health has stymied the growth of fields such as psychology and psychiatry. Together, Ripper and Spurlock identified programs at top-tier universities that would be best equipped to receive funding from the Quell Foundation to expand residency capacity.

“The shortage of trained specialists in the field has left an overwhelming surplus of untreated patients with mental health struggles,” Spurlock explained. “Our work aims to fix the disparity.”

The pace of change can be frustrating, Ripper said, but she stays focused on the mission. “I hope I get to see more providers in the field because of the work we’re doing.”

Even as it presses forward with these projects, the foundation is grappling with its fiscal situation in the wake of COVID-19. Its flagship fundraiser -- an annual masquerade ball held in rotating cities across the country -- typically pulls in between $700,000 and $900,000. This year, none of that revenue will be forthcoming. Intern Sarah Sausman tackled this problem by crafting best practice guidelines for how to revamp a fundraising model for a virtual environment.

Nontraditional student Alexandra Stratos also reimagined fundraising in response to the pandemic. The foundation typically enters a team into the Falmouth Road Race, which had now been reconceived as a virtual athletic event. As she was working through the logistics of this project, Stratos grappled with a difficult set of circumstances: her husband had been re-stationed from Texas to Virginia, and the day before they were to have moved, their new house burnt to the ground. Even so, Stratos mastered an online giving platform and took the innovative step of expanding the slate of activities to include rowing, cycling, and swimming.

For many of the interns, the Quell Foundation’s mission is deeply personal. Lowe’s closest friend in high school, for example, died by suicide during her junior year. “Ever since then I’ve been dedicated to challenging the silence around mental health,” she said.

Lynch is amazed at how the interns managed to mobilize to meet the challenges posed by the pandemic. “The disruptions in many cases have been catastrophic—and we’re not out of the woods yet—but I’m heartened by the resilience of this cohort of young interns,” Lynch said. “The need for social isolation seems to have opened the floodgates for a frank dialogue about mental health, and I’m so proud of to see Penn State students seize the moment.”

Offering internships is only the most recent step Lynch has made to support Penn State students. To further enhance the academic program that led him to his new career, Lynch created the Quell Foundation Bridge the Gap Undergraduate Scholarship, which is awarded annually to students majoring in Human Development and Family Studies who plan to pursue a career related to the provision of mental health services. Though originally set up as annually funded scholarship, Lynch took the extra step in 2017 of converting it into an endowed fund, thus ensuring it will support students in perpetuity.

Last year’s recipient, Adenique Lisse, recalled how the scholarship impacted her educational trajectory. “The financial support allowed me to stay laser-focused on my academic success,” she said. “I now plan to earn a doctoral degree in clinical psychology focusing on PTSD and intimate partner violence within military families.”

For his part, Lynch feels energized that a new generation of Penn State students is fighting back against demeaning stereotypes that stigmatize people with mental illness. “My generation casually used labels like ‘crazy’ and ‘demented’ -- and worse,” he said. “Not anymore. These interns are lifting the mask and connecting with the humanity of people who are suffering. That gives me hope.”

Lynch launched the Quell Foundation in 2016 after graduating two years earlier from the Master of Health Administration (MHA) program within the Department of Health Policy and Administration. After grappling with mental health struggles personally and within his own family, he felt called to create a national movement devoted to destigmatizing mental health disorders.

By promoting open, judgment-free dialogue, the foundation strives to reduce suicides, drug overdoses and rates of incarceration for people living with mental health illnesses. Four and a half years since its inception, the foundation has distributed $1.8 million in scholarships to students in more than 450 universities across 49 states. “It’s amazing what we’ve been able to accomplish in such a short amount of time,” Lynch said.

The Quell Foundation Bridge the Gap Undergraduate Scholarship helped to advance “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a twenty-first-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.

 

 

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Last Updated August 17, 2020