By Published: Jan. 19, 2021

After leading a ‘call to action’ on burgeoning mental-illness crisis, prof launches a massive, open online course on mental health

Earlier this year, June Gruber and a colleague led a nationwide “call to action” to address mental health, which has deteriorated during the pandemic. Since then, she’s worked to raise awareness of mental health issues in graduate students, “flatten the mental-distress curve” and understand first-year student wellness.

The pandemic has impacted all of us in terms of its mental health impact and repercussions​."

Now, Gruber, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder, is launching a new online class called #TalkMentalIllness on the university’s sponsored learning program, CU on Coursera, and on the public Coursera platform.

The course, which launched in early February and is free to anyone in the CU community, comprises five one-week modules, each focused on an area of mental illness (see infobox). 

Last year, concern about a pandemic-induced wave of “serious and costly psychological difficulties” prompted Gruber and colleagues across the country to issue a call to action to address the mental health crisis. 

grandin interview

Interview with Temple Grandin, mental-health advocate and expert at Colorado State University.

“The pandemic has impacted all of us in terms of its mental health impact and repercussions,” Gruber said, adding that one way to address the challenge is to raise awareness and have open, candid conversations about mental health.

The goal of the course is to spread knowledge about mental illness—and the unusual challenges people face now—and to help people apply this learning to help them enjoy better lives. Gruber also hopes this course combats stigma that often shrouds those suffering from psychological disorders and symptoms. 

“We hope that this course will help raise awareness and spark conversations about mental illness in the broader community, which is why we call this course #TalkMentalIllness.”

In the course videos, Gruber interviews 37 experts from around the nation on each person’s area of expertise. These include leading public figures such as Temple Grandin, an autism and mental health expert from Colorado State University, and bipolar disorder expert Kay Redfield Jamison, author of An Unquiet Mind.

Dacher Keltner

Interview with Dacher Keltner, director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

Gruber also interviews experts at the forefront of the science of happiness, including Yale University’s Laurie Santos, who taught the largest class in the university’s history on happiness, and the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center Director Dacher Keltner on awe, compassion and kindness. 

They discuss the causes and cutting-edge treatments for serious disorders, persistent stigma surrounding mental illness, systemic inequality in mental health-treatment, innovations in mental health with former National Institute of Mental Health Director Thomas Insel, as well as today’s biggest mental health challenges.

“I wanted to unite a group of people, experts and mental health advocates who care and are passionate about these issues to speak firsthand and to share their insights information with the CU community and broader world.”

Many Screenshots of interveiws

In the course videos, Gruber interviews 37 experts from around the nation on each person’s area of expertise.

When Gruber asked people to participate, she was “blown away by the immediate and uniformly positive response.” Many colleagues told her that the rise in mental health issues is one of the most important societal crises that we’re facing, she said.

One challenge to mental health—besides concerns about disease, unemployment and isolation—is uncertainty, Gruber said. 

“We have this huge stressor that we don't know quite how long will last and quite what our lives will look like as we go through it.” 

One certainty is the harm of uncertainty, which is “one of the largest stressors humans can face,” she said. Another is that social isolation is stressful, given that severed social connections leave people with “less psychological armor to manage stress than we would have otherwise had.” 

A final assignment in the course asks participants to share stories about mental illness they’ve observed in society or in themselves—perhaps sharing on social media using #TalkMentalIllness (if they’re comfortable doing so). 

Gruber’s non-credit course will be available to 75 million people on the public Coursera platform, said Christopher Haynes, director of learning experience design at the CU Boulder Provost’s Office for Academic Innovation, which supports faculty who develop “new, large-scale programs or partnerships driven by education innovation.” The university Library Media Services provided the course’s video production.

All CU Boulder faculty, staff, students and alumni who have a email address may take the course free of charge. Those outside the university community may take the course for $49; they may also audit the course at no charge, but auditors will not receive a certificate of completion or feedback on assignments, Haynes said.

Additionally, all of Gruber’s video interviews are on the CU Boulder College of Arts and Sciences’ YouTube channel.

Gruber directs the Positive Emotion and Psychopathology Laboratory at CU Boulder and focuses much of her research on how positive emotions can go awry and become maladaptive among people with and without mood difficulties. She appears in a TEDx talk on the “dark side of happiness.” In 2016, she was named a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and in 2020 received the UROP Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award. Gruber is also a fellow of the CU Boulder Institute of Cognitive Science.

Learn how to support Gruber’s work at this link.

#TalkMentalIllness comprises five modules on these issues:

  • Public Perceptions of Mental Illness
  • Specific Psychological Disorders
  • Serious Mental Illness
  • Disproportionate Impacts on Marginalized Communities
  • Evidence-based Approaches to Treatments & the Science of Happiness