Removing Barriers to Mental Health Care with Alecia Sundsmo, PsyD 

Posted: September 07, 2022

Alecia Sundsmo, PsyD, hadn’t planned to take her passion for psychology into the field of higher education, but she knows this is where she belongs. 

“I really fell in love with higher education. It gives you a chance to really think about population health and public health and really wrap your arms around the entirety of it,” Dr. Sundsmo says. “College students are a discrete set of people that you have the ability to influence. They live together, they eat together, they go to school together.” 

Dr. Sundsmo discovered her passion for mental health in an introductory psychology class. For years, Dr. Sundsmo had been asking the question: why do people in the same place experience life in so many different ways? 

“I learned how much the brain influences how we uniquely see the world and how different that is from person to person,” says Dr. Sundsmo. Taking this path, Dr. Sundsmo believed she could really help people to learn how to flourish in their lives by helping them understand what's going on in their brain.

Addressing the Needs of Underserved Populations

Dr. Sundsmo knew early on that she wanted to provide mental health services to underserved populations. She trained at a Native American boarding school, where institutions with a long history of trauma were being rehabbed, and this is when she began to understand the importance of relationship building, identifying the interpersonal dynamics that exist in cross-cultural conversations, and the need for culturally-informed care. 

Though she applied for numerous diversity-focused internships, Dr Sundsmo was never matched. That’s when a supervisor suggested higher ed. Dr. Sundsmo didn’t expect to fall in love with the work, but after completing a practicum at Portland State University, then pre-doctoral internship at Grand Valley State University, she knew this is where she wanted to be. 

Students are not only the next generation of leaders, but they are a population facing unique barriers to care and Dr. Sundsmo saw this career path as an opportunity to make direct systemic changes to influence health equity and accessibility to mental health care across a diverse student body. 

“You're not just influencing this one students’ treatment and care,” she explains. “You're showing that mental illness can be treated. You're de-stigmatizing help-seeking. And in doing so, you are putting somebody out there who then has influence in their work, their family, and their community to really help encourage people to access care.”

Solving Student Mental Health Needs

In her 15+ years in higher ed, Dr. Sundsmo has seen students leave campus to get care, put their studies on hold, or abandon school altogether, when, perhaps if the system was more supportive, they could have completed their degree and found the right treatment for their mental health needs.

“Schools are doing a better job of recruiting a diverse student body, but they don’t necessarily catch up to meet the needs of who they are recruiting,” she says. “They expect everybody to sort of pave their own way.”

Funding for mental health services are behind the curve, Dr. Sundsmo explains. While education is the top priority for many institutions, she believes student health can make or break the ability to learn. Many institutions have wrongly asked, Given the amount of money I have, what’s the best I can do? But Dr. Sundsmo would like to see institutions asking the questions: What do students really need? How do we resource that? 

“Nobody has met the need. Nobody in higher education has had enough resources to actually tackle this,” says Dr. Sundsmo. “I think influencers like Mantra can really come in and look at this problem from the outside and say, ‘How can we do this in a different way?’”

Influencing the Future of Collegiate Mental Health Care

Even though Dr. Sundsmo no longer works in higher education, she is continuing to serve college students – and aims to make an even greater impact on their mental health care as Mantra’s Executive Director of Therapy. 

“My mission at Mantra Health is the same, just expanded,” Dr. Sundsmo explains. “How do I not only influence my population of students but how do I affect the national conversation about student health and well-being? How do I make a difference and make sure that we are giving students the care that they need and deserve?” 

We have a cultural gap in this country around our knowledge about mental health and mental illness, Dr. Sundsmo says. “What does it mean to not be doing well versus having an actual mental illness? How do we help you flourish regardless of whether you have an illness? She believes we need to put the interventions in place to actually address the problem, and that includes therapy, medication, but also includes other self-care tools and community-based interventions. Rather than approaching mental health from a one-size-fits-all approach, she said we need to make treatment available for mental illness, but also promote mental health and well-being. 

“Good quality care helps people engage in meaningful lives,” Dr. Sundsmo says. “It helps them have good relationships with people, helps them be civically engaged, helps them to be a functioning part of the society.”

Learn more about Dr. Alecia’s new role as Executive Director of Therapy and follow along for more insights here.