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Inaugural Chief Wellness Officer Aims to ‘Change the Culture’ Around Mental Health

Dr. Jessi Gold, the new chief wellness officer for the UT System and an associate professor of psychiatry at UT Health Science Center, is a nationally recognized expert on student mental health and wellness, as well as health care worker mental health, burnout, and advocacy.

Psychiatrist Jessi Gold knows firsthand how critical mental health counseling can be for students navigating the rough waters of higher education.

The inaugural chief wellness officer for the UT System and associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Dr. Gold is transparent about the fact that she struggled with her own mental health during college at the University of Pennsylvania and sought help on campus.

“I went to a therapist at the university health center, and they said basically I was not sick enough to get help on campus,” she recalls. “It felt very confusing because it had taken me a very long time to decide to get help in the first place. I was using criteria most of my patients use, which is I was still doing well in school, so I was fine. But I wasn’t doing anything else, so I wasn’t fine.” Ultimately, she got therapy and started medication, however, her initial experience has always echoed in her mind and serves as a catalyst even today.

“Ever since that experience and then with my ultimate decision to go to medical school and into psychiatry, I always really wanted to find a way to help college students in particular,” she says. “I think if you have a good experience the first time you get mental health help, you’re young and you’ll go back and you’ll tell other people and then other people will go and tell their friends, because that’s the way that group is, they talk about everything. Passing on a positive experience goes a long way in changing the culture of shame and fear around mental health and in helping students feel like asking for help is a strength, which it is, not a weakness.”

Dr. Gold is a nationally recognized expert on student mental health and wellness, as well as health care worker mental health, burnout, and advocacy. She will also serve as a psychiatrist at University Health Services on UT Health Science Center’s Memphis campus, where initially she will see primarily students. This is a similar role to her previous position at Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine, where she was an outpatient psychiatrist seeing faculty, students, staff, and hospital employees.

Dr. Gold believes her personal experiences, as well as her education and training, will help her understand and relate to students and employees to make a difference across the UT System.

“There’s a crisis in this country. There’s a crisis on college campuses. There’s a crisis in health care workers, and we need to be doing something about it,” she says. “We need to actively and systematically be approaching this across the spectrum of mental health needs. This role is really a commitment at the highest level to be doing that.”

“My job is not to come in as an outsider and change everything,” she says. “My job is to learn from the experts who have worked in well-being through the UT System on the campuses as faculty and staff, as well as the students. From traveling around and talking to people, I hope to learn what works and doesn’t, what we should be implementing, what is lacking, and what the culture around well-being is. I will be transparent along the way about what I am learning, and from my experiences, will work to develop a plan and a team, and ultimately, implement solutions.”

“There’s a crisis in this country. There’s a crisis on college campuses. There’s a crisis in health care workers, and we need to be doing something about it.”

Dr. Jessi Gold

Dr. Gold is well known as a writer and advocate for mental health, including how it is experienced and reflected in pop culture. Her writing has been featured in the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Atlantic, InStyle, and Self, and she has been interviewed across media platforms from CBS and NPR to TIME. She has more than 50,000 followers across several social media platforms.

She has been working on a book for more than three years. “How Do You Feel?: One Doctor’s Search for Humanity in Medicine” will be released October 8 through Simon Element, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

“It follows me and four of my health care worker patients forward as we struggle with the challenges of caring for yourself when your job is caring for others,” Dr. Gold says. “While it focuses on health care, and we all know someone who is in health care, it is a lens for all of us to look at what prevents us from prioritizing our own well-being. It looks at issues of burnout, perfectionism, and stigma, among others, through narrative, including my own.”

Dr. Gold earned Bachelor of Arts and Master of Science degrees in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania. She earned her medical degree at the Yale School of Medicine and completed residency in adult psychiatry at Stanford University, where she served as chief resident.

Dr. Gold and her Maltipoo, Winnie

Born in New Jersey, and raised in Jacksonville and Gainesville, Florida, Dr. Gold has lived in five states, as well as in Switzerland and England. “I have friends from every stage of life, including from elementary school,” she says. “In fact, my best friend from elementary school’s dad played football for UT.”

For fun, Dr. Gold enjoys reading, traveling, and going to concerts and comedy shows. In the past year, she saw Taylor Swift twice, Brandi Carlile, and Adele in Las Vegas.

She moved to Memphis in the fall and began her new role February 1.

“I had an unusual welcome to Memphis,” she says. “In January, it was freezing and snowing, and a pipe burst in my new house, causing my garage ceiling to collapse on my car. It is more work and totally putting a damper on my ‘new leaf,’ but I don’t feel alone in it, and I think the community for an outsider already feels inviting. From people at work, to my Realtor, to my neighbors, people have given me people to call, made some of the calls themselves, and even invited me to eat. It is hard to be mad about it when you feel so supported. That culture is something I look forward to being a part of and only growing in my connections and support here.”