Noted Psychologist and Higher Education Leader John Dunkle, Ph.D. Joins the JED Team as Senior Clinical Director of Higher Education

Dunkle will lead the JED Campus initiative, which provides colleges and universities nationwide with a holistic approach to strengthening and developing mental health and suicide prevention efforts.

In his youth, John Dunkle dealt with feelings of pain and loneliness. “The work that I do has very deep personal origins,” he says. “At one point, I seriously considered suicide because I thought there was no way out of the pain and shame I was experiencing.” It was his personal experiences that attracted him to the mental health field and inspired him to help others who were struggling with similar issues. This summer, Dunkle will join the JED team as senior clinical director, higher education.

Growing up in a conservative town, Dunkle felt a great sense of shame and isolation as a result of his sexuality. After taking a psychology course in college, he resolved to commit himself to a career of helping others.

For the past 15 years, Dunkle has fulfilled this commitment through his role as executive director of the Northwestern University (NU) Counseling and Psychological Services. At NU, Dunkle played a key role in implementing the JED Campus program as well as an additional campus-wide suicide prevention program, Question-Persuade-Refer (QPR). In partnership with University Health Services, he collaborated in implementing suicide screenings in primary care appointments. John has written and presented extensively on college student mental health issues and threat/risk assessment.

As senior clinical director, higher education, Dunkle will lead a number of JED initiatives, including the signature JED Campus program, which helps colleges and universities strengthen their policies, programs, and systems to support student mental health and reduce risks for substance misuse and suicide. There are over 300 JED Campuses to date, reaching 3.5 million students. Schools that have completed the program report improvements across all domains of JED’s Comprehensive Approach and are providing their students with emotional safety nets to help them learn, grow, and prepare for life after graduation.

JED’s new Alliance with Morgan Stanley will enable the organization to more than double the number of colleges and universities receiving its JED Campus services. It will allow JED to reach 3.5 million additional students at colleges and universities nationwide—bringing the total number of students served at JED Campuses to approximately 8 million. Dunkle’s expertise in college student mental health and suicide prevention will be instrumental in leading this initiative.

Last week, we spoke with Dunkle to discuss his new role at JED, the critical issues facing college students today, and more.

What excites you about the mission of The Jed Foundation and your new role?

I am deeply honored and beyond excited to join the JED family. As executive director of the Counseling and Psychological Services at NU, I played a key role in bringing the JED Campus program to our campus, and through that process I became much more familiar with and appreciative of the program specifically and the foundation more broadly. The first thing that stood out to me about JED is how deeply personal it is; the Satow family have endured an unimaginable tragedy and have channeled their pain to a life mission of making sure other families do not have to go through the same thing.

For 20 years, the JED vision and mission has been very clear. It provides colleges and universities, teens and young adults, and communities with a public health framework and tools for reducing suicides as well as stigma around mental health/illness. JED understands that there is no one-size-fits-all approach–the response must be multi-dimensional and layered and must take into consideration the nuances of cultural/racial and other demographic factors. The team at JED has already done such great work and I cannot wait to join them as the program continues to grow.

We have to provide services and programming that meet the specific needs of all students but that are nuanced to be developmentally and culturally relevant.

What can we do to better address the critical issues facing college students? 

We need to be much more proactive in understanding the critical issues facing students and how these issues are experienced based on students’ identities and the intersectionality of those identities. In higher education, we are not just supporting traditional college-aged undergraduate students of 18-21 years. We must also understand the needs of graduate and professional students, non-traditional-aged undergraduates, distance learners, and so on, and we must understand the interplay of various identities. We have to provide services and programming that meet the specific needs of all students but that are nuanced to be developmentally and culturally relevant.

What is unique about the college student that drives your interest in this demographic?

What drives me in my work is that I get to meet and support some of the best and brightest in our world and hopefully aid them in achieving their academic goals so that they can be future global leaders. I thrive on their passion and energy, and I find myself learning more from them than what they may learn from me.

What could we be doing better as a society and what kind of culture shift is needed to support a more holistic care of people?

It is my opinion that we need leaders–whether political leaders (internationally, nationally, locally), administrative leaders, employers, etc.–who make holistic well-being a priority. Over the past two years or so, I have been reading a lot of Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability and the importance it plays in being courageous and in being a great leader. When leaders are focused on one-upping others and financial gain only, instead of expressing genuine concern for others, they create an environment in which most will not thrive. We need brave leaders to step up, be kind, genuinely care about others, and say they are sorry when they make a mistake. It is those types of leaders who will role-model self-care and who will create a movement in our culture of taking care of ourselves and each other.

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