Gift to strengthen program on mindfulness, empathy and compassion in education

Image of Kevin and Karen Lynch at the Nittany Lion Shrine

Kevin and Karen Lynch form one of the most formidable power couples in the global health sector. As the founder, president and CEO of the Quell Foundation, Kevin oversees a nationally acclaimed mental health organization that is dedicated to reducing rates of suicides, overdoses and incarceration of people experiencing mental health illness. Karen, as president and chief executive officer of CVS Health, leads a team of more than 300,000 colleagues in providing health insurance and services to an estimated 34 million people.

Both stress, however, that their glamorous narrative of success belies the unseen struggles and personal tragedies that have indelibly marked their lives. Together, they are not only speaking out about mental health challenges but channeling substantial resources to Penn State to fund programming that will promote resilience and flourishing through training young people in the skills of empathy, awareness and compassion.

To advance these priorities, the couple has made a gift of $250,000 to create the Kevin and Karen Lynch Fund for the Program on Empathy, Awareness, and Compassion in Education (PEACE) in the College of Health and Human Development.

Housed within the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, the PEACE Program combines traditional prevention science with cutting-edge discoveries about how to promote human flourishing across the lifespan through practices like mindfulness, yoga and compassion training. A growing body of research has established that these practices help to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Building on the work done with a K-12 age group and their caregivers, recent PEACE initiatives have focused on the impact these practices have on college students and the mental health crisis on many college campuses today. The Lynch Fund for PEACE will advance this work with the college-age population across Penn State and beyond. [Visit the PEACE website.]

“Kevin and Karen have shown extraordinary leadership in raising the alarm about the acute stressors afflicting the psychological health and well-being of young people,” said Craig J. Newschaffer, Raymond E. and Erin Stuart Schultz Dean of the College of Health and Human Development. “Now, their generosity will be the engine that drives forward research and advocacy on matters of empathy and self-care. I am deeply grateful for their gift, and I share their excitement about the rich potential of all that PEACE has to offer.”

The PEACE program has been engaged in a project known as the Student Flourishing Initiative, a network of collaborative partnerships with the University of Virginia and the University of Wisconsin that shares insights and curricula on how to cultivate empathy and therapeutic mind-body practices. This network has recently expanded to include more than ten universities across the United States.

Robert Roeser, professor of human development and family studies and Bennett Pierce Professor of Caring and Compassion, will spearhead the expansion of PEACE and the work with this wider network of universities. With support from the new endowment, Roeser will have the resources to press ahead with key priorities of the PEACE strategic plan, which include certifying and training additional faculty members, strengthening the growing community of practitioners on Penn State campuses, developing a sustainable research program on the flourishing courses and their impacts on students, and maximizing outreach opportunities through lectures and workshops.

“Too often health initiatives assume a tacit separation between the mind and body,” said Roeser. “PEACE will empower students to relearn the many ways our brains and bodies are integrated and mutually reliant. Because of this infusion of funding from the Lynches, our team will now have the capacity meet demand for these courses, increase support and training, accelerate the pace of research and expand our educational outreach. Our hope is to scale our mind-body courses across the Penn State system so students in every corner of the commonwealth can benefit from them.”

Kevin Lynch, a retired U.S. Navy submariner who graduated with a Penn State degree from the Master of Health Administration (MHA) program in 2014, stresses the magnitude of challenges facing young people. “Global warming, the opioid crisis, normalized mass shootings, political divisiveness, entrenched racial inequity — these problems can feel insurmountable,” he said. “But we are failing a generation of Americans if we don’t give them the tools to psychologically survive these rolling crises.”

Kevin has seen and experienced his own crises firsthand. His son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and struggled with a substance use disorder, and without adequate professional support, he spiraled into an addiction that left him incarcerated for eight years. The pain of that experience led Kevin to experience his own struggle with depression. Now, his work at the Quell Foundation works to dispel the stigma around mental illness, and he has repeatedly benefitted from the help of Penn State interns to advance the foundation’s mission.

Karen’s adversity began earlier. When Karen was 12, her mother died by suicide, and with her father already absent from the family, Karen and her siblings were raised by her aunt Millie. Through her rise up the corporate ladder, Karen kept silent about these experiences among her colleagues, primarily out of concern that persistent misconceptions around mental illness could affect the trajectory of her career.

Now, both Kevin and Karen speak openly and often about the challenges they have faced. Their intention is that PEACE, as a wellness-oriented program, will help to ensure that members of the Penn State community and beyond are empowered with the professional resources they need to respond to adversity with resilience. The notion of sustaining life-long learning and growth, even after significant difficulties, lies at the heart of the courses designed through the PEACE program.

With their gift to the PEACE program, the Lynches are building on an already robust philanthropic legacy at Penn State. The Quell Foundation Bridge the Gap Undergraduate Scholarship, launched in 2017, is awarded to students majoring in human development and family studies who are pursuing a career in mental health.

The Lynches’ gift to PEACE will advance “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more, visit the “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence” website.

Story Source: Penn State News

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Robert W. Roeser