Student-run conference will focus on sharing knowledge, best practices in addressing mental health issues
“We can improve our campus communities more effectively together than we can alone.”
This simple yet powerful idea has guided Collin Spencer in his work over the past year to help organize the Intercollegiate Mental Health Conference (IMHC) at Tech.
From Feb. 15-17, students and campus leaders from nine universities, along with clinical practicioners, researchers, and advocates, will gather at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center to tackle one of the most pressing and pervasive issues in American higher education: students’ mental health and well-being.
Through panels, group discussions, case studies, lectures, and networking, the conference will bring together a wide range of people to interact directly, but it will also result in the creation of a publicly accessible best practices repository and a shareable database of successful college mental health programs.
Spencer actually sees it as more of a “research initiative to identify, evaluate, and share components of effective college mental health systems.” The ultimate goal? To improve mental health care at Tech by learning about the programs and policies that have worked elsewhere.
And that is what sets this conference apart. “I hope it will mark a paradigm shift in how student leaders, faculty, and administrators seek to address common barriers to healthy learning environments,” Spencer said.
John Stein, vice president for Student Life and the Brandt-Fritz Dean of Students Chair, is just as eager to create solutions here at Tech. “My hope is that we will be able to learn from what other universities have tried and adapt the strategies that have proven successful on other campuses,” he said.
In Spencer’s view, the most innovative and successful policies and programs originate with students. He points to student engagement and input in the 2013 Mental Health Task Force, launched by the Office of the President at the urging of undergraduate and graduate students to assess Tech’s mental health services; and the 2017 action teams and current A Path Forward — Together initiative, created in the aftermath of the shooting death of undergraduate student Scout Schultz.
The way he sees it, the IMHC is another “manifestation of student efforts and ingenuity. Mental health is the responsibility of the entire community — not any single individual. Barriers to systemic change are real; however, three years in mental health advocacy have taught me that you are limited only by your ability to connect with others in a common purpose.”
A third-year biology student from Suwanee, Georgia, Spencer has been a singular force in bringing this conference to fruition. But he was by no means alone.
Tech’s Mental Health Student Coalition (for which he serves as director) first proposed the concept in 2018, and it was quickly embraced by the Student Government Association (SGA), Office of the President, Division of Student Life, the Counseling Center, and GTRI. In addition, Georgia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the Carter Center also lent their support to make the weekend conference a reality.
In addition to Georgia Tech, the universities sending teams of students and staff include Emory, Georgia State University, and Clark Atlanta University; ACC peers Virginia Tech, the University of North Carolina, and Duke; as well as Stanford, UCLA, and Michigan. Spencer believes that this gathering “will provide the practices needed to advance our mental health care system. It will take an unprecedented level of effort and collaboration to implement them to their fullest potential.”
Stein concurs. “It is because of these students’ passion and commitment to thoroughly analyze this important issue that this groundbreaking conference is happening,” he said. “It is an exciting and necessary dialogue.”
As is common among students, Spencer himself was no stranger to mental health issues early on in his college career, and he faced them. But he didn’t face them alone. “I am fortunate to be surrounded by others who must find the grit to overcome adversities today in order to change tomorrow,” he said. “Our collective resilience and perseverance have changed the lives of students we may never meet.”