Student Voice of Mental Health Award Honoree Collin Spencer Transforms Tragedy into a Quest to Promote Mental Well-being for All

This year’s Student Voice of Mental Health Award honoree is Collin Spencer, a student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who majored in biology and graduated this past spring. After witnessing a fellow student’s tragic death, Spencer established the Mental Health Joint Allocations Committee, a million-dollar fund overseen by students to improve mental health at Georgia Tech. In addition, Spencer created the Intercollegiate Mental Health Conference, the first student-led national research consortium to characterize college mental health systems and identify best practices. He also served in various leadership roles on campus, including director of the Mental Health Student Coalition and undergraduate representative to the president of Georgia Tech for mental health task forces. Beyond his advocacy, Spencer has conducted research in biological weapons defense, antimicrobial resistance, psychiatric epidemiology, and single-cell genomics. Most recently, he earned Georgia Tech’s College of Sciences award for his senior thesis on using machine learning to understand how single cells in the brain are altered by autism spectrum disorder.

We sat down with Collin recently to talk with him about his work in mental health and his thoughts about the future of the field.

Q. Congratulations on winning the Student Voice of Mental Health Award! Tell us what this award means to you.

A.  This award celebrates a four-year journey in mental health advocacy and research. It’s a tremendous honor for me, Georgia Tech, and fellow student leaders who dedicate themselves to progress and service in mental health. The Student Voice of Mental Health Award is an incredible opportunity to continue realizing the social impacts of my research. Now more than ever, improving the mental health of our communities requires unprecedented collaboration that I am privileged to contribute to.

Q. What inspired you to work on the Mental Health Joint Allocations Committee and Intercollegiate Mental Health Conference?

A. I entered college immediately after a very traumatic experience. In the process of healing, I encountered stigma, inadequate resources, and other systemic barriers. By the time I recovered in my sophomore year, I witnessed campus police shoot and kill a fellow queer student leader who was experiencing a mental health crisis. I was haunted by the realization that it could have just as easily been me or one of my friends. The trauma I experienced became my impetus to understand and heal the biological and social systems that cause mental illness. The Mental Health Joint Allocations Committee (MHJAC), the Intercollegiate Mental Health Conference (IMHC), and my research are all manifestations of a desire to protect others from what I’ve witnessed.

Q. What part of your work on these projects are you most proud of?

A. For the conference, I’m most proud of our final publication of the conference proceedings, totaling over 100 pages. It was amazing to see students across the country use our research framework to characterize and define their respective best practices in college mental health. In addition, during my tenure as chair of the Mental Health Joint Allocations Committee, I oversaw the allocation of more than $300,000 in funding for mental health initiatives and programs on campus. Contributions were made to a new LGBTQ+ resource center, a mental health intake center, biofeedback therapy equipment, and an online portal for mental health resources. There are numerous programs and infrastructures I feel very fortunate to have contributed to, yet what I am most proud of are the connections I forged between student leaders. The IMHC and MHJAC helped us to see our individual challenges and triumphs reflected in others. That perspective is invaluable.

Q. What are some of the barriers or challenges you faced? 

A. The most difficult part of the IMHC and MHJAC was that there was no precedent for what we were doing; we were the first. This was a blessing in that our vision was unfettered. It was also a curse in that the possibilities for what these projects could become were endless. As a result, the process of bringing these projects into fruition led us to seek advice from a diverse group of experts, ranging from academic researchers to state health government officials. By learning how they approached issues in their respective fields, we were able to abstract their problem-solving paradigms and create our own solutions.

Q. Did you have support from anyone like a mentor or campus professional when it came to your work with campus mental health? How did they support you?

A. First and foremost, I have to thank Dr. Greg Gibson who has been my professor, research advisor, and mentor. He let me work on the Intercollegiate Mental Health Conference as a capstone project for his course Health, Genes, and Society and provided much-needed succor throughout the process. On a more fundamental level, he showed me that being scientific and being compassionate are not mutually exclusive. The IMHC and MHJAC are a reflection of this philosophy, researching how best to improve the human condition in college environments. Dean of Students John Stein and Dr. Mack Bowers at the Counseling Center were also instrumental in supporting my endeavors.

Q. What are some of the most pressing issues in mental health right now, and what do you hope college mental health will look like in 10 years?

A. All organisms are a product of their environments and it follows that diseases are often largely a reflection of  a mismatch between organisms and their environments. This axiom of life is ill-represented by the pernicious myth that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance. It is not only scientifically simplistic but leads us to pathologize the individual for their illness. Nobody is born with depression. Those afflicted inherit genetic vulnerabilities that require environmental stress to produce canonical symptoms. We need to take a step back and address the pathological environments we have created that induce mental illness. Socioeconomic inequality, climate change, the ability to compare ourselves to others through technology–all of these broader issues influence the mental illness pandemic we are experiencing.

Q. How has your work with campus mental health transformed you as a person?

A. For a good portion of my college career, my identities as a scientist, gay male, and mental health advocate felt divorced from one another. However, when I created the IMHC I saw these roles intertwine and emerge as something greater. The questions I asked about vulnerable populations (such as LGBTQ+) and the evolution of mental health systems are reflections of the identities I carry. Having the opportunity to express the totality of myself through a project like the IMHC has helped me realize the power of my experience.

Q. What do you hope to achieve in the future? 

A. I’ll begin my Ph.D. in Genetics and Data Science at Mount Sinai this August and will pursue a career in research thereafter. Throughout my scientific career, I intend to develop the emerging field of “precision psychiatry,”, using artificial intelligence to identify optimal therapies for an individual’s psychiatric illness based on their unique biopsychosocial makeup. Along the way, I plan to advise the development of national and international policy for the clinical application of AI-based diagnostics. Ultimately, I hope these efforts will contribute to a world where our collective mental well-being is a primary indicator of our success as a species.

Q. What words of advice do you have for other student leaders trying to change what mental health looks like on their campuses?

A. If there’s one piece of advice I could give to other student leaders, it would be that you are only limited by the connections you make. I cold-emailed and called over a hundred people and organizations to make the Intercollegiate Mental Health Conference a success. In all cases, I was astounded by how willing people were to contribute their time and resources to help. There is little you can accomplish by yourself, but by guiding others toward a common goal, you can move mountains.

Q. What is something that people would be surprised to know about you?

A. I listen to a lot of music (1,500 hours or 62.5 days in 2019 alone) and I’m always grooving to a rhythm. It’s a form of mindfulness for me.

Q. What is your superpower?

A. My superpower is definitely my resilience. A lot of people think that scientists are the smartest people in the room. In reality, the best scientists are those that are undeterred by the constant failure that accompanies research and strive forward with a novel approach.

JED’s Student Voice of Mental Health Award is an annual award honoring an undergraduate college student who is doing outstanding work on their campus to raise awareness for mental health issues, reduce prejudice around mental illness, and encourage help-seeking among their peers.

We would like to recognize and congratulate this year’s impressive finalists:

  • Kenna Chick, Georgetown University
  • Amelia Windorski, Smith College

Thank you to our distinguished panel of judges:

  • Matthew Argame – 2017 JED Student Voice of Mental Health Honoree
  • Christopher Chamberlin – Dean of Students, The Cooper Union
  • Bonnie Lipton – Senior Prevention Specialist, The Suicide Prevention Resource Center/Education Development Center, Inc.
  • Enna Selmanovic – 2019 JED Student Voice of Mental Health Honoree
  • Hannah Strashun – Campaign Director, Ad Council
  • Carol Ullman – Founder, Jerry Greenspan Student Voice of Mental Health Award

Learn more about the award and view previous honorees.

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