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Tai Mendenhall: An ‘adrenalin junkie’ finds his niche in family social science

Courtesy of Tai Mendenhall
Tai Mendenhall, right, and his wife with their Harleys.

Some people might imagine the professional life of a therapist to be something like what you see on the TV show “Frasier:” An erudite gentleman sitting in an upholstered chair, nodding solemnly and taking notes while a patient stretches out on a couch and discusses his anxieties.

Though Tai Mendenhall, a medical family therapist and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Family Social Science, is trained in therapy, that’s where the similarities end.

After earning his Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy (now known as couple and family therapy), Mendenhall, a self-described “adrenalin junkie,” focused on medical family therapy, counseling individuals and families facing medical crisis in hospitals and clinical settings. He’s also volunteered as a mental health provider at a number of national disasters.

It’s the immediacy of the work that appeals to Mendenhall, son of an orthopedic surgeon first trained in veterinary medicine.

“I’m from a medical family,” he said. “I’m comfortable with blood and guts. In the hospital setting, most crises are identified after a car crash or with a dead fetus on an ultrasound,” he said. “It’s hard work. It’s exhausting, but it’s also amazing. The first time you see hope in the eyes of a wounded child, you just can’t put a price tag on that. It’s an honor and a privilege to be part of that healing and growth.” 

During one of our recent cold stretches, I talked to Mendenhall about finding excitement and purpose in his research and fieldwork, and about the joy he finds in teaching undergraduates at the university.

MinnPost: How would you describe your research?

Tai Mendenhall: Much of my work is driven by community-based participatory research. It’s a very collaborative and engaged way of evaluating interventions around health care. Because it’s collaborative, it’s also very messy. Its very fast-paced. Its very unpredictable, and frankly risky in terms of funding and approvals that you have to go through, but it is very real-world, on-the-ground research. I love it. 

My clinical work in is not done in the typical therapist’s setting: a comfortable office, soft lights and a fern. The world of medicine is intense and acute. The intensity and fast pace of clinical work is something some people run away from. It draws me in.

MP: You also volunteer as director of mental health teams for the University of Minnesota’s Medical Reserve Corps, a group of university-affiliated professionals who assist victims in times of crisis. What drew you to that work?

TM: The first work I did with the Medical Reserve Corps was in 2001 during the 9/11 attacks, when I was a graduate student. Later, I helped with hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the 2004 tsunami and the 35W bridge collapse, among other events. The assignment comes suddenly, and the work is very fast-paced and high stress.

I guess that wanting to do this kind of work is part of my personality. I am an adrenalin junkie. I ride motorcycles. My wife and I both drive Harleys. My dad and my stepmom also ride bikes. We’re always riding motorcycles, bungee jumping, scuba diving — all kinds of crazy, intense things. It’s how we’re wired.

MP: One of the parts of your job that seems quite different from the high-adrenalin fieldwork you’re known for is teaching FSOS 1101: “Intimate Relationships.” It’s one of the largest and most popular classes that your department offers, but its topic — understanding intimate relationships — seems different from your other interests. How did you end up in the role?

TM: Teaching “Intimate Relationships” is one of the highlights of my work. One of my mentors was professor Wayne Caron. Wayne designed this course. I was one of his teaching assistants when I was in graduate school. In the fall of 2007, Wayne didn’t feel good one day. He went home, went to sleep and didn’t wake up. He was just 51 years old. It was literally a week before classes started.  

After Wayne passed, our department head asked me to teach the course because I was familiar with it. It was only supposed to be for a semester. This upcoming semester will be the 16th time I‘ve taught it.

MP: So you kind of fell into the role.

TM: In a way, but teaching this class had turned out to be such a joy. It’s a course about intimate relationships and how they succeed, how they fail. The students and I discuss everything from domestic violence to long-distance relationships, courtship patterns, jealousy and infidelity. We talk a lot about things that wouldn’t be allowed in the high school context.

Because it is so immediately relevant to students — everybody is ether in an intimate relationship or wants to be in an intimate relationship — it is a course that has extraordinary diversity in the student population. Any given semester we have upwards of 70 different majors in the room. It fits a social science core requirement; so many different students who are seeking majors from all over the university are interested in taking the class. And the subject matter is universally appealing and exciting.

It’s such an intense and different course. It’s very different from most other courses that students will take in college. It is an amazing journey that we go through every semester.

MP: Since you’ve been teaching this course for so long, are there ways you’ve managed to make it your own?

TM: For years, people have been telling me that they love the class but they don’t really like the textbook. We’ve tried a number of different textbooks over the years, but the truth is most textbooks are boring. They somehow manage to make something amazing like intimate relationships seem dry.

So I engaged a number of students and said, “Why don’t we write a textbook for the class?”  Who better to write a textbook for twentysomethings than a bunch of twentysomethings? The whole book is made up of academic content and personal stories and vignettes from the voices of our students. We ended up having 18 students formally recognized as authors and co-authors in the book. The book’s title is “Intimate Relationships: Where Have We Been? Where Are We Going?” We piloted it for the first time this fall semester.

MP: What’s been the reaction to this textbook?

TM: So far so good. The students anecdotally say they love the book. They love it because it is actually exciting to read. It is not dry. As we were editing it, we tried to make sure all of the language was presented in an up-front manner, with an engaging writing style that doesn’t come off as trite or boring. It’s been a lot of work to create, to be sure, but it’s been worth every single minute.

MP: Talking about intimate relationships sounds interesting, but does the class also have high academic expectations?  

TM: For the final project, every student writes a 25-page paper on the topic, “Where have I been? Where am I going?” Most students haven’t written a paper that long before: They are sophomores. They start the semester scared out of their minds by this reality, but at the end, most say it was the highlight of the course.

MP: You started college as a psychology major, but then dropped out when you were 20. Later you came back and focused on family social science. What made that switch work for you?

I wish I could get up on national TV and say this: I want to get the word out about careers in family social science and marriage and family therapy. When high school students are thinking about going to college, these fields are not on their radar. In family social science, about half or more of our majors are transfers. When they started at the U, they’d never even heard of us, but once they find us, they fall in love. That’s what happened for me. It felt relevant to the world and the real-life events we all experience.

I absolutely adore my job. I love getting up in the morning and going to work. I just have fun. You’ll hear all those statistics about how many people are unhappy in their jobs. Not me. I love my work and what I do. 

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