With gifts, Stanford expands student mental health and well-being efforts

Bina Patel

Bolstered by recent philanthropy, Stanford is working to expand the mental health and well-being resources available to Stanford undergraduate, graduate and professional school students.

Among the new gifts is an endowed directorship for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) – among the first of its kind for a college counseling center. The directorship provides a permanent source of funding for this key leadership position. Other gifts are funding a health communications specialist focused on getting information to students, four new well-being coaches, services for students struggling with alcohol and other drug use, and research to measure the effectiveness of interventions that focus on mental health and well-being. This support, coupled with resources provided by the university, has significantly expanded available services for students.

“Well before the pandemic, the mental health and well-being of our students was an issue of deep concern for Stanford,” said Provost Persis Drell. “We recognize the profound challenges that students are facing today and the fundamental importance of addressing their emotional needs. We are so grateful to the donors who are helping us expand our services and programs for students in a meaningful way.”

At the center of the university’s multifaceted effort to support mental health and well-being is CAPS, which provides 24/7 crisis support, clinical services, groups, workshops, and more. An anonymous donor has created funding for the center by endowing the CAPS directorship, held by Bina Pulkit Patel, who is also a clinical associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

In recent months, Stanford also has announced other endowed positions within student affairs, including gifts to endow a directorship for the Asian American Activities Center and a residential fellow in Ujamaa student residence.

“The concept of endowing leadership positions in student affairs is an exciting new direction for Stanford – one that hopefully can serve as a precedent for other campus communities to follow,” said Susie Brubaker-Cole, vice provost for student affairs. “It allows Stanford to honor the contributions of outstanding professionals like Bina Patel, Cindy Ng and Jan Barker Alexander, and recognizes the profound impact these individuals have on students’ lives outside the classroom.”

In her past two years as director, Patel has worked to expand the diversity of counselors available to students, meet the surge in demand for mental health services and revise the intake process for students to prioritize timely in-person consultation with a CAPS clinician. Under her guidance, the range of services at CAPS were expanded, including the development of a robust group therapy and workshops program. Patel also has supported the development of strong, collaborative relationships among CAPS clinicians and campus entities – including community centers, the First Generation-Low Income office and specific schools.

Stanford has made significant financial investments, implemented policy and operational changes and worked to address high-risk alcohol and other drug use, all toward addressing students’ mental well-being needs. In the fall of 2019, CAPS was given additional funding for four clinicians to improve student access and reduce wait times. In addition, Vaden is currently working with colleagues across the campus to implement the recommendations of the Provost’s Alcohol Solutions Group and carefully considering how to impact the use of drugs on campus.

Addressing students’ evolving needs

Philanthropy is also enabling Stanford to boost services for student mental health and well-being in other ways.

A gift from Sheri Sobrato Brisson, ’84, a philanthropist and long-time advocate for child and teenage mental health, has enabled Stanford to hire a communications specialist. Christine Wong Mineta, Stanford’s new associate director of communications for student health and well-being, is helping students understand what resources are available to them and access digital information that can help them manage their own care and needs.

Since her arrival in September, Mineta has focused on the needs of students of color and strategies that inspire students to practice health-promoting behaviors in their lives. She also has produced materials to help students cope with election stress and feelings of isolation, and promoted the many services available to students while living at home.

With a gift from a second anonymous donor, Stanford has been able to hire four new student support specialists. These specialists, referred to as “coaches,” are available when student needs do not rise to a clinical level; for example, when students are feeling homesick or lonely, going through a break-up, struggling with healthy eating and sleeping routines – basically anytime that students could use extra help managing stress, life transitions, interpersonal concerns and more.

An added plus: These coaches are available to students everywhere, even during the pandemic when students are living across the country and around the world, and state licensing laws limits CAPS clinicians to serving students in California.

Additional philanthropic gifts are helping to expand services available to students struggling with substance abuse and addiction. For example, with donor support, Stanford is hiring a specialized counselor and postdoctoral fellow to work with students seeking help with alcohol and drug use.

Measuring impact

While expanding available resources and services to students, Stanford is also working to measure the effectiveness of its interventions.

“With strong empirical evidence, we could point our work to where we could achieve the greatest gains on these issues,” said Jennifer Calvert, chief of staff and assistant vice provost for strategy in the Office of the Vice Provost for Student Affairs. “In addition, this could generate valuable information about the social determinants of mental health on campus and support more precise, data-driven interventions.”

A gift from Kendra Ragatz, MBA ’02, and Erik Ragatz, ’95, MBA ’01, is extending groundbreaking research led by Jamil Zaki, associate professor of psychology and director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory. His 2017 study highlighted the importance of empathetic connections in helping undergraduate students deal with stress and hardship. The additional funding will help extend Zaki’s research on social connections across students’ four-year arc at Stanford and provide an assessment of well-being and mental health-related initiatives.

The hope is that the university’s comprehensive student mental health and well-being efforts, including the implementation of a new residential system known as ResX, will foster a greater sense of community and belonging among students.

In addition to gathering empirical data, the university is listening to the voices of students in order to understand their areas of greatest needs. The staff in the Office of the Vice Provost for Student Affairs meet regularly with the Associated Students of Stanford University (the ASSU) to identify new ways to support students.

“Student mental health and well-being has been a top priority for the ASSU for many years, and we are thrilled to see real progress,” said ASSU Executive President Vianna Vo, ’21. “It is deeply gratifying to see donors stepping forward to help, too. We are excited about what the future holds, and remain committed to working with the administration on new approaches that will help students now and for many years to come.”