By Published: Feb. 13, 2023

Featured speakers sit in a panel to take questions

Left to right: Moderator Maria Kuntz and speakers June Gruber, Kourtney Kelley, Elisa Stern and Amelia Moser

The community-led dialogue series Coloradan Conversations launched its 2023 season with a highly relevant topic: Transforming Treatment for Mental Health, featuring a conversation centered on new ways to diagnose and treat mental illness using brain imaging, genetics, telemedicine and community-based intervention—particularly among college-aged students.

The goal of Coloradan Conversations is to encourage discussion about timely—and sometimes challenging—topics. “We believe that powerful conversations coupled with knowledge and action can fuel change,” said Maria Kuntz, Coloradan editor and event moderator. 

Inspired by the Coloradan alumni magazine’s fall 2022 cover story, “CU Researchers Rethink Mental Illness,” the hybrid event took place at the Chancellor’s Hall and auditorium in the CASE building and featured four CU Boulder experts. After presenting their individual research topics and findings, each shared insights based on audience members’ questions during the panel discussion portion of the evening. 

Watch the presentations

June Gruber's presentation

Kourtney Kelley's presentation

Amelia Moser and Elisa Stern's presentation

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. young adult population has been in a vulnerable time of identity development and life transitions. According to event speakers, these emerging adults have struggled with mental health issues related to the chronic, uncertain disruption brought on by the pandemic: Studies indicate more than 16% of youth have experienced a major depressive episode, and more than 2.7 million youth suffer from severe depression. 

It’s estimated more than half will not receive treatment.  

A vulnerable population

“Humans deal much better with acute stressors that have a beginning and an end than chronic stressors without any sort of reprieve,” said speaker June Gruber, a licensed clinical psychologist, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU Boulder and director of the Positive Emotion and Psychopathology Laboratory. 

“We know as psychologists, one of the key buffers to promote mental wellness and safeguard against the onset and severity of clinical symptoms is social support,” she said. “In many ways, that’s the key part of what we need to be considering—how to bring back those safeguards.” 

Gruber’s research team is currently focused on the concern that ability to cope with chronic stressors is one of the elements that leaves the young adult population most vulnerable. The COVID era has taught us that timing is critical, she said.

The pandemic also compounded existing stress and anxiety levels among young adults. “Between 2008 and 2018, the percentage of students reporting mental health issues nearly doubled,” said speaker Kourtney Kelley, a CU Boulder psychology alumna with a minor in sociology, as well as a senior project manager and professional research assistant with the Mindful Campus and Girls Like Us programs at the university’s Renée Crown Wellness Institute.

“Programs and interventions that incorporate mindfulness and other contemplative skills are promising interventions to promote well-being,” said Kelley, who also cited the importance of working with community members as co-researchers to contribute to social justice change rather than working on communities—a unique feature of the Mindful Campus Program at CU Boulder. 

Strength in numbers

Amelia Moser, a doctoral student in clinical psychology and neuroscience at CU Boulder, and Elisa Stern, a doctoral student in clinical psychology and behavioral genetics, emphasized how crucial it is to harness interdisciplinary tools to advance both mental health and treatment accessibility. 

They pointed to the backdrop of the increasing mental health crisis among young adults and the broader population: treatment inaccessibility due to high costs, lack of health insurance, not enough providers—or if individuals do receive treatment, the first attempt may be ineffectual and require further treatment or medications. 

“For us as researchers, this poses really important questions of how we can do a better job of understanding the underpinnings of mental health problems and how we can do a better job of personalizing treatment options for people,” said Moser. “This is something that CU is well-equipped to tackle.”

Stern added, “CU is well-positioned to do a lot of this work, largely because interdisciplinary research is so central” to the university’s approach. 

“Mental health and psychiatric illnesses are complicated and not something that can necessarily be tackled by one discipline or department alone,” she continued. “Interdisciplinary work is woven into the fabric of how research is done here at CU.”

Featured exhibitors and additional resources

For the first time during a Coloradan Conversations event, two exhibit partners were featured after the speakers, including an Inside U collaborative project with Pixar Animation Studios showcasing an interactive educational tool inspired by the film Inside Out to improve mental health among children. 

Additionally, mood:sync—a smartphone app developed and led by researchers in CU’s Department of Information Science—showed its ability to allow individuals living with a mental illness to track mood changes, monitor symptoms and identify potential triggers by collaborating with members of their support networks.

Learn more about mental health resources and the event’s featured experts. You can also watch all three presentations online.