Turning a Diagnosis Into Dialogue and Distinction

Emily Spencer is as grateful to DU as the University is to Emily Spencer.

“I don’t have the words to express my gratitude,” Spencer said of the faculty members—and especially Shelly Smith-Acuña, dean of DU’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP)—who supported her when her son, a student at the time, experienced an all-too-common mental health crisis while on campus.

“There had to be […] more freedom for students to speak up when they or their friends are struggling.”

Because the outward signs of mental illness include impulsive behavior, trouble focusing and poor decision-making, faculty, staff and peers often assume a student has a behavioral problem rather than a health issue that needs treatment.

“The good news was that my son did need to go to the hospital, and he did get the help he needed,” Spencer said. “But through the experience, we all learned that certain University policies needed to be changed. There had to be more education for the adults on campus, better communication between departments and more freedom for students to speak up when they or their friends are struggling.”

So Spencer, who had been supporting the Colorado Women’s College at DU for more than a decade, committed herself to finding solutions. She learned as much as she could about mental health on college campuses. Having sold her business, she was free to apply her skills as a successful entrepreneur and compassionate community builder. She met with anyone who would listen.

“The timing was right,” Spencer said. “Chancellor Rebecca Chopp had come on board, and people were more open to having these kinds of conversations. And then I found Shelly.”

Fast-forward three years and a six-figure gift later from Spencer, and GSPP is ready to launch what likely is the only doctoral-level Substance Use Disorder Specialty in the country. Spencer, who has chaired GSPP’s Board of Advisors for the past year, has made an additional major commitment for scholarships to students enrolled in the specialty. And a new full-time faculty member, Jennifer Tippett (PsyD ’13), has been hired to lead the program.

“It’s really tricky to tease out mental health from substance abuse,” said Tippett, who has worked at the individual and community-health levels, from hospitals and prisons to high-end residential rehab centers. She is trained to apply all evidence-based interventions, such as harm reduction, smart recovery and mindfulness, and she will utilize what she knows in her work with students and in building partnerships with other entities across campus and in the community.

And, for the Specialty, every course Tippett creates will be new. She said, “The vision is so wide. The need is so great. We’re really excited about this.”