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Dr. Richardson smiles in her office.

Turning pain into purpose: Dr. Richardson’s journey to OSU

Thursday, May 9, 2024

Media Contact: Page Mindedahl | Communications Specialist | 405-744-9782 |

Long before Dr. Tamara Richardson was the employee assistance psychologist at Oklahoma State University, she was struggling with her own battles, searching for a place she belonged.   

Richardson grew up in Lawton, Oklahoma, before attending Cameron University to receive her bachelor’s degree in psychology and family science. After completing her undergraduate, she came to OSU for her doctorate in clinical, counseling and applied psychology. She then headed to Tallahassee, Florida, to complete her pre-doctoral internship at Florida State University before settling in Stillwater, where she now helps employees overcome adversities and mental health challenges.

Discovering passion amidst uncertainty  

Raised in a low-income household, Richardson’s early years were marked by adversity. 

Navigating life as a child with undiagnosed ADHD, Richardson grappled with daily challenges that far exceeded the norm. Frustrated by these hurdles, she rarely envisioned her future and constantly felt adrift, uncertain of her place in the world. 

“I grew up in a rather challenging life. I think because of some of those hardships and adversity growing up, I know what I wanted to do. I just knew that things would be hard,” Richardson said. 

“Throughout the majority of my life, I felt like I was wandering around aimlessly. Not knowing what direction, not knowing where to go, not really understanding who I was, or what my value was to the world, and ways that I can contribute to it.” 

Richardson said she always knew she would have to go to college to rise above the circumstances she grew up in. She knew no one could help her pay for higher education, so she poured her efforts into her studies, determined to secure scholarships that would enable her to become the first in her family to attend college. 

Richardson’s efforts were rewarded with a full-ride scholarship to Cameron, beginning an exhilarating new phase in her life. Yet, amidst her excitement, uncertainty lingered regarding her plan of study and, again, where she belonged.  

She said she knew she wanted to work in the medical field, but was unsure what path to specialize in. After ending up in psychology classes, Richardson remembered a seed that had been planted by her aunt when Richardson was in high school. 

“I was a teenager, and I was doing all the teenage things and acting out. One time, my aunt came to me and said, ‘Tamara, have you ever thought about being a counselor, so that you can help other people who are struggling with some of the same things that you’ve struggled with in your life?’” Richardson said. “That was the dumbest thing I had ever heard at that time because if you knew me then, you would have thought it was insane for me to be in this chair now.”

Richardson discovered a deep passion for psychology at Cameron, drawn to explore the very challenges she grappled with in her youth. Immersed in the study of human suffering and the intricacies of everyday experiences, she uncovered a niche where she finally started to feel like she belonged. 

After finishing her bachelor’s, Richardson set her sights on Stillwater. A McNair Scholar, Richardson again earned a full-ride scholarship to pursue her Ph.D., being selected for the counseling psychology program in 2003.

Richardson entered the new program feeling comfortable in her studies, but still unsure if she really knew where she belonged in the psychology space. Wanting some experience in a new clinical area, she accepted a graduate student position with OSU’s student counseling center. There, Richardson found something that ignited a fire and taught her how to turn pain into purpose.  

“Once I ended up working at the OSU student counseling center, it just felt like home,” Richardson said. “That’s when I focused my training toward how to help students, especially ones near and dear to my heart, because I shouldn’t have been in college; I should have taken a very different path. That’s when it became very personal and very important to me.”

After completing her doctorate, Richardson moved to Tallahassee for her doctoral internship at FSU in their student counseling center. After a year, she and her husband, Trevor, came back to Stillwater, where they both earned full-time jobs at OSU’s student counseling center. She served in various roles in the center before becoming the sole employee assistance psychologist for the university in 2018. Around the same time, Trevor Richardson began serving as OSU Athletics’ director of counseling and sports psychology. 

Empowering Mental Wellness

Richardson’s employee assistance counseling program is one-of-a-kind. 

The program is free for OSU employees and their dependents. Seeing 26-30 OSU employees a week, Richardson works around the clock counseling patients while also managing marketing, communication and referral sources for the OSU employee assistance psychology program.  

“Dr. Richardson is an integral member of our clinical team, serving as the sole psychologist for our Employee Assistance Program. Her commitment and selflessness are truly commendable, ensuring that our employees and their dependents receive exceptional behavioral health care,” OSU director of university health services Jack Henneha said. “She is an invaluable asset to the university, embodying the dedication and expertise we strive for in providing comprehensive health services to our employees.”

Outside of OSU, Richardson works as a mental health consultant for the  Concerns of Police Survivors, an organization that supports the families and co-workers of police officers who die in the line of duty. Richardson attends the C.O.P.S Kid’s Camp as well as the Spouses Retreat, providing counseling for individuals who have lost their parents and spouses in the line of duty.

Addressing mental health challenges 

In the past decade, the fields of psychology and mental health have experienced remarkable progress.  

There has been a significant shift toward normalizing discussions around counseling and seeking support, while increased attention and research efforts have been directed toward enhancing mental health treatments. 

Despite these efforts, many state departments continue to grapple with inadequacies in addressing the mental health crisis and meeting their citizens’ needs. 

According to an article by the  U.S. News, 19% of Oklahoma adults have some form of mental health disorder, ranking the state as the sixth highest in the country.  

Forbes magazine ranks Oklahoma 13th in the worst states to live in for mental health care. The state received a score of 51.04 out of 100 based on seven metrics.  

“In Oklahoma, there is a massive shortage of mental health resources. The last time the data was taken, we only met 37% of the state’s need for resources,” Richardson said. “So, this is an example of people needing the service, the stigma is as low as it’s ever been, people are absolutely therapy positive, they’re valuing it, but then they’re running into barriers to access it.” 

OSU’s commitment to bolstering mental health resources is exemplified by the innovative initiative known as  Project ECHO. This groundbreaking program, overseen by  OSU-CHS, aims to mitigate health disparities in underserved and remote regions across the state, nation and globe. Through Project ECHO, a diverse team of experts — including addiction specialists, psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health and wellness specialists, and pharmacists — are deployed to rural areas in Oklahoma, offering invaluable assistance and support tailored to meet a myriad of needs. 

In a significant stride toward advancing mental health care, OSU recently initiated the construction of theDonahue Behavioral Health facility, the state’s new flagship mental health hospital, in Oklahoma City. Collaborating closely with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, OSU is leading this transformative project to ensure comprehensive access to a wide array of mental health services for all Oklahomans.

In 2023, OSU broke ground on the 106-bed, $70 million Oklahoma Psychiatric Care Center in Tulsa, which will open in the next year, giving people an option in eastern Oklahoma and the state’s second-largest city. 

Another example of OSU’s commitment to expanding mental health resources lies among the students. In 2023, Cowboys United raised more than $275,000 to expand mental health services for all OSU students over a five-day campaign. The $278,037 from 611 donors raised in 2023 funded hiring more graduate students to continue to meet students’ needs as well as offer more virtual counseling options and referral support. 

“At the OSU Center for Health Sciences, we’ve put a priority on being the behavioral health academic leader for the state of Oklahoma,” OSU-CHS President Johnny Stephens said. “From partnering with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services on two new psychiatric hospitals in our state to addiction research and treatment through the National Center for Wellness & Recovery, OSU is making an impact on one of society’s greatest needs.”

If you or someone you know is in a mental health crisis:

Call 911 or the OSU Police immediately. You can also call Student Assistance by Mercy at 855-225-2726 a 24-hour call center staffed with counselors who will assist you in getting the help you need.

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