Published November 18, 2019

By Paula Derrow

Five years ago, when Marlene Brandt’s daughter succumbed to a soul-crushing depression, she had no idea where to go for the help the family desperately needed. Now, through her leadership, Brandt is ensuring that other parents—and their children—won’t have to live through the same ordeal.

Portrait of Marlene Brandt
Portrait of Marlene Brandt. (Photo by John O’Boyle)

Marlene Brandt has a vivid memory of the moment her family’s nightmare began. A longtime member of Rutgers University Foundation’s Board of Overseers, Brandt was watching from the stands in the fall of 2014 as her vibrant daughter “Mia,” one of her three children and a senior in college, led her school’s volleyball team to victory. “She was an accomplished athlete who had just been named MVP of the tournament,” says Brandt RC’80. “We were ecstatic.”

Before that game, Mia seemed to be continuing her run as a popular student-athlete, according to Brandt. Although Mia had experienced some anxiety issues as a teenager, she’d been dubbed “the most colorful crayon in the box” in her senior high school yearbook. She had made it to the Junior Olympics with her club volleyball team and was named 2010 Female Athlete of the Year for her high school, where her name still adorns the gym wall.

Brandt assumed that Mia was thriving in college, too, loving her classes, her friends, and her sorority. “Everything was just perfect—or perhaps it was all an illusion,” she says. Because as Mia walked off that volleyball court with her MVP trophy, instead of celebrating, “she started crying inconsolably.”

Her daughter continued to cry in the days to come, so much so that she had to take a leave from school. Brandt felt isolated. “We didn’t know where to turn for help,” she says. “I did exhaustive research, looking everywhere for the right doctor, the right treatment.”

What Brandt did not realize at the time is that Mia’s situation was all too common. One in five adolescents experiences a serious mental health disorder, according to 2017 statistics from the National Institutes of Mental Health. Indeed, young adults age 18 to 25 are significantly more vulnerable than people in their later 20s and older.

Yet despite the epidemic proportions of depression among people Mia’s age, Brandt discovered that there were no adequate in-patient mental health treatment facilities specifically for young adults in New Jersey. Instead, she tried sending her daughter to a pediatric psychiatrist for biweekly sessions (“not sufficient”) and then a day program at a major hospital in New York City that lumped her in with patients from all age groups (“Mia felt too uncomfortable to stay there.”)

The next step for Mia was hospitalization at a facility in New York City that Brandt describes as “austere and prison-like.” Every day, Brandt drove the 90 minutes from New Jersey into the city, where her daughter waited behind a series of locked doors. And while Mia seemed to improve, when she was released there was little follow-up, and little in the way of recommendations for what to do next.

Predictably, when Mia re-enrolled in her college, she quickly dropped out, her depression worse than ever. “She would sit on the couch and tell me, ‘Mom, I can only take this for six months…four months…two months,’” Brandt says. “My mind raced to find answers. I was terrified beyond words.”

She was terrified with good reason: Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-to-24-year-olds, topped only by traffic fatalities, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2017, there were 47 percent more suicides among people age 15 to 19 than in the year 2000.

Brandt was in despair until she finally found a solution nearly 250 miles from home. In 2014, Mia was admitted to a treatment program at a Massachusetts hospital designed expressly for young adults. Instead of prison-like conditions, she had a comfortable private room. After giving Mia a thorough evaluation, the doctors developed a comprehensive treatment plan, one that allowed her eventually to spend more and more time out of the hospital and in New Jersey, where they helped her connect with local doctors and treatment. “It was the perfect program for her,” says Brandt. “They stepped her down slowly over a period of months, until she was weaned off hospitalization completely. She gained confidence and grew into an independent and well-adjusted young lady.”

Brandt was determined to create that kind of program in New Jersey so that no young person with mental health struggles would have to travel hundreds of miles to find the right treatment. To make that happen, last spring, Brandt committed $30 million to help launch the Rutgers Initiative for Youth Behavioral Health and Well-Being. The initiative will ultimately provide in- and outpatient therapy and treatment to young adults with behavioral health disorders. Brandt’s vision, she says, is to create a spa-like facility on a six-acre property on the George H. Cook Campus in New Brunswick, adjacent to a horse farm and across from Rutgers Gardens. “In addition to a myriad of individual and group therapy treatments within the facility, we are also looking to integrate equine and horticulture therapy,” she says. “The goal is to offer an expansive and comprehensive treatment program.”

“Only a quarter of adolescents with serious mental health disorders receive the treatment they need,” says Frank Ghinassi, president and CEO, University Behavioral Health Care, which will oversee the initiative’s Treatment Center and Residence. “The new center will be a breakthrough in providing services—some of them not readily accessible in the past—to young people in our region.”

In addition to treatment facilities, the initiative will establish a research center, the Institute for Social Emotional Wellness at Rutgers’ Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology. Both facilities will be buttressed by the resources at Rutgers’ two medical schools and other graduate schools and research labs. “Bringing together so many of Rutgers’ strengths in this way puts the university in a position of national leadership in an area that truly deserves our best efforts,” says Rutgers President Robert Barchi.

As for Mia, her life has continued on the upswing. She is working as a graphic artist for an advertising firm in New York City, living with her boyfriend, and, says her mother, “her friends have returned in droves. Her coworkers love her. She’s our incredible success story.”

All of this just increases the gratitude Marlene Brandt feels—and her determination to help other parents whose children are struggling to find solutions. “My daughter is doing so well. She is a happier and better version of her previous self,” says Brandt. “It feels like her soul came back and gained wings.”