Counseling Center evolves with holistic approach to mental health

Twenty-eight years ago, when Jamie Davidson, Ph.D., left the University of Georgia for UNLV, he didn’t expect to have to justify to the then-government the need for the counseling center’s mental health services.

“They told me they were closing the counseling center,” Davidson recalled, after the center’s director left. “And I thought, ‘How can you close a counseling center at a major university?’ You know, that’s unheard of.”

Student Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), located in UNLV’s Student Recreation and Welfare Center, offers a variety of services to help
students deal with psychological problems. (Becca Schwartz/UNLV).

Now that UNLV’s vice president of student welfare — which encompasses a long list of responsibilities such as overseeing the Student Health Center, Student Guidance and Psychological Services (CAPS), and the Behavioral Health Team — he can look back and see how far UNLV (and CAPS) has come. made progress in prioritizing mental well-being.

“We still have a counseling center so I assume you know they’ve decided to keep it open,” he jokes.

But at that moment he felt depressed. It took a conversation with his wife to “find my moxie” and confront the administration about what it would take to keep the center open.

Davidson says, “The administrator said, ‘In addition to helping students, I want to know the impact of the counseling center on academic success and student retention.'”

While such research is now commonplace, 28 years ago, with just himself and an extremely small staff, Davidson says he had to get creative with collecting and assessing such statistics.

“In collecting the data, we showed, among other things, that by offering counseling — not only do students get better, which you would expect — 85% said counseling helped their academics. Because when you are struggling with a well-being problem, it is very difficult to concentrate and study.”

Davidson and his team also assessed students for dropout risk, and those who had considered withdrawing from UNLV were followed as they progressed through treatment.

The results? Davidson says students who have completed counseling have been held at higher levels by the university, even though they are considered high-risk. Good news, given a 2019 American Council of Education survey that one in three college students “meets the criteria for a clinically significant mental health problem.” The study also examined the link between mental health and student success, finding that students with poor mental health are more likely to have lower GPAs, take longer to complete a degree, or drop out of college altogether.

“It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy,” says Davidson. “If you help students meet their core needs, it can have a big impact. Not only on their emotional well-being, but also on their ability to succeed academically. I like to think it’s part of laying a cornerstone of well-being for their entire lives. As the Surgeon General said, ‘If you don’t have mental health, you don’t have health’.”

US mental health statistics

  • 1 in 5 adults experience a mental illness every year
  • 1 in 20 adults experience a serious mental illness every year
  • 1 in 6 young people aged 6-17 develop a mental disorder every year
  • 50% of lifelong mental illnesses begin at age 14 and 75% at age 24

Grow to meet demand

While Davidson no longer has to fight to prove the relevance of the advisory center (now called CAPS), there is still a lot of room for growth.

Staffing, for example, has become a problem across the country as on-campus counseling centers struggle to keep up with the growing need for mental health services. However, Davidson is pleased to report that UNLV has seen a remarkable 50% increase in staff this year. The increase was made possible after a $50 per semester student fee went into effect in Fall 2021.

“It is a fantastic opportunity,” says Davidson, “I am so grateful to the UNLV President, of Consolidated Students of UNLV (CSUN) and the Graduate and Professional Student Association. These groups were instrumental in getting that approval , and it just made such a huge difference getting the staff we really need Once we’re done with this hiring we’ll be at the recommended national ratio of one counselor for every 1500 students [for mental health staffing at a university].”

The fee will help CAPS add six additional counselors and two psychiatrists, and will also fill new support roles, including an associate director, wellness educator and administrative assistant. In total, CAPS will employ 21 counselors, two psychiatrists, two behavioral therapists, two psychiatric nurses, and two wellness educators. Including administrative support, the CAPS team will total 33 employees to serve the UNLV community of 30,000 students.

Last fall, CAPS moved two counselors (a psychologist and a therapist) into on-campus housing. Counseling staff will be available at the Shadow Lane campus by the summer of 2023. Next semester, mental health first aid and suicide prevention training will be significantly expanded, allowing faculty and staff to better assist in conducting conversations with high-risk and distressed students.

“CAPS services are a breakthrough for students,” said Chelsie Hawkinson, an associate professor in UNLV’s College of Education.

Hawkinson, who primarily teaches in the first- and second-year seminar program, says her teaching and research are focused on student engagement and success.

“We spend a lot of time during the freshman seminar discussing the importance of developing psychosocial skills before exploring the development of academic skills. Without the strong foundation of positive psychosocial behavior, it is very difficult to focus on learning and achieving goals. Understanding concepts around self-regulation and social inclusion can be made more personal when students use the services offered at CAPS.”

CAPS takes a holistic approach to student well-being and is constantly evolving and experimenting with its best-practice approaches. It offers services such as outreach programming, workshops, consultation, individual and group therapy, same-day emergency services, and Therapy Assistance Online (TAO).

Students also have the opportunity to participate in an “identity space,” which is designed as a safe space where they can process, receive support, share resources, and build community on campus. Current identity spaces include: The Spot: Black Student Space; La Casa: Latinx student space; and Salam House: space for Muslim students.

Davidson reports that CAPS’s most commonly used resources are individual and group therapy (with more than 10,000 visits in the past year). There is also a demand for psychiatric services since, more recently, students come to college with previously prescribed medications. Still, Davidson emphasizes that CAPS takes a holistic approach to the well-being of the individual and adheres to the ‘Stepped Care Model’.

Davidson explains: “The Stepped Care Model is really about making sure you use the resources you have as efficiently as possible. The starting point is therefore to offer the individual the support he needs.”

For example, students may find that they only thrive in individual or group therapy or that they prefer a combination of therapy and prescription medications. Others may want to build on the skills they develop in therapy by checking out CAPS’ collection of online self-help videos for more tips on how to reduce anxiety or get a better night’s sleep. CAPS also gives students access to resources such as Kognito, a website that can help them learn about the topic of mental health and how to talk about it.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that mental health problems are a sign of weakness, and they’re not,” says Davidson. “Actually, one of the interesting things is that sometimes it’s our brightest students who worry about their mental health. Fortunately, we live in a time when professional athletes and celebrities come out to talk about their own challenges, right? To let people know, “I got this, but I’ve succeeded in my career.”

“People have this misconception that having a mental health problem somehow means you’re not good enough, or you’re broken or flawed — which it isn’t. It’s just something we all do to some degree. if we are completely honest.”

Counseling Center evolves with holistic approach to mental health

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