Christopher Flynn has been appointed executive director of Mental Health Initiatives at Virginia Tech and will lead the campus-wide implementation strategy related to the recommendations from the Mental Health Task Force report.

Flynn’s appointment in this position comes less than one year after Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke appointed a task force to study issues associated with mental health services at Virginia Tech.

Laura Hungerford, who was also a member of the Mental Health Task Force, will share leadership with Flynn. Collaborating with academic departments, Hungerford is professor and head of the Department of Population Health Sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech, a position she has held since 2016.

Flynn and Hungerford are charged with convening working groups of students, faculty, and staff to address recommendations related to mental health awareness across the university, mental health education and prevention, ongoing supports and intervention with students, and effects of policies and procedures on student functioning.

“As we strive to support our students’ mental health in new and innovative ways, it is important that we begin to look at awareness campaigns, peer and paraprofessional work, transdisciplinary research, outreach and education, academic concerns, and advanced work connecting mental health liaisons to each college and all areas of campus,” said Patty Perillo, vice president for Student Affairs. 

Colleges and universities across the country are experiencing dramatically increased student demand for mental health services. Increased utilization of mental health services may also stem from success in efforts to decrease stigma associated with seeking mental health services and with greater awareness among students of benefits of early attention to symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other conditions.

At Virginia Tech, the demand for mental health services has grown consistently, doubling over the past decade. In the past five years, the number of students receiving services at Cook Counseling Center has increased by 43 percent, far exceeding the 9.5 percent growth in enrollment over the same period.

The Virginia Tech Mental Health Task Force, led by Chris Wise, assistant vice president for Student Affairs, was convened in fall 2018. The task force included Virginia Tech students, faculty, counseling staff, and experts in psychiatry, psychology, epidemiology, and neurosciences. It considered relevant research, conducted data analytics on mental health among American youth, and convened presentations and discussions with a wide constituency of students, faculty, and staff on campus committed to mental health.

The Mental Health Task Force report, which included eight broad recommendations to improve mental health care at Virginia Tech, was released in March 2019 by the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, in partnership with Student Affairs. The report and proposed initiatives were brought before the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors (BOV) in June 2019.

Since the June BOV meeting, Flynn and Hungerford were appointed to lead the implementation strategy, and other initiatives to improve mental health resources on campus have begun to take shape. These include:

  • Four new counselor positions were added to Cook Counseling Center this summer in order to maintain staffing levels at the optimal counselor-to-student ratio as recognized by International Association of Counseling Services (IACS) and to better align services with demand.
  • Bethany Rallis, a member of the Cook Counseling Center staff, has been designated to coordinate research with the Healthy Minds Study and the Center for Collegiate Mental Health to allow for yearly tracking of the mental health of Virginia Tech students and to allow for national comparisons.
  • The search for an assistant director of Financial Wellness is underway. The successful candidate will work in Hokie Wellness to address student concerns regarding financial literacy. This will continue the work of Hokie Wellness to develop and deliver evidence-based approaches to education and prevention of mental health concerns.
  • Steps to identify and engage student groups will be a major priority for the fall. This will include trained aides, mental health advocates, student government, and representatives from a range of student activities.
  • This fall, the university will explore embedding counselors in colleges across campus.  Cook Counseling Center currently has counselors embedded in a number of locations across campus, including the College of Veterinary Medicine, the Graduate Life Center, and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in Roanoke.

Flynn has been director of Cook Counseling Center since 2006. He came to Virginia Tech from Loyola University New Orleans, where he directed the counseling center for 17 years. Flynn was honored in 2013 by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors with a Lifetime Achievement Award. The award recognizes those who have provided outstanding service to the association and exemplary leadership in the field of college and university counseling centers.

A veterinarian and epidemiologist, Hungerford oversees the Virginia Tech Department of Population Health Sciences, which houses the Master of Public Health Program. Hungerford’s research is in quantitative studies of human and animal health populations. She also works with clinical research at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in Roanoke. She is a Fellow of the National Academies of Practice.

Ellie Sturgis, associate director for Clinical Services at Cook Counseling Center, has taken on the role of interim director of Cook Counseling Center. The changes in leadership became official on Aug. 10, 2019. 

— Written by Sandy Broughton. Illustration by Brian Yohn.

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