The counseling center is evolving with a holistic approach to mental health

Twenty-eight years ago when Jamie Davidson, PhD, left the University of Georgia for UNLV, she didn’t expect she would need to justify her need for a counseling center’s mental health services to the then-administration.

“They told me they were going to close the counseling center,” recalls Davidson after leaving the center’s directorship. “And I was like, ‘How can you shut down the counseling center at a major university?’ You know, this is unheard of.

Student Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), located in UNLV’s Student Recreation and Wellness Center, offers a variety of services to help.
Addresses student mental health concerns. (Becca Schwartz/UNLV).

Now the associate vice president for student welfare at UNLV — which includes a long list of responsibilities such as overseeing the Student Health Center, Student Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), and the behavioral health team — she can look back and see how UNLV (and CAPS) has made progress in prioritizing mental health.

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

But, at that time he was disappointed. He had to negotiate with his wife to “find my moxie” and talk to the administration about what it would take to keep the center open.

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

Although such research is in vogue now, 28 years ago, with just himself and an extremely small staff, Davidson says he had to get creative to collect and assess such data.

“By collecting the data, what we showed is that counseling – not only does students get better, which you would expect – 85% said counseling helped their academics. It’s really difficult to concentrate and study when you’re struggling with a problem.”

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

result? Davidson says that students who complete counseling are held to a higher standard by the university, even if they are considered at risk. Good news considering a 2019 American Council of Education study found that one in three 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 were 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. “When you help students meet their core needs, it can have a profound effect. Not only on their emotional well-being, but also on their ability to succeed academically. I think it affects their whole life.” Part of laying the groundwork for wellness for life. As the Surgeon General said, ‘If you don’t have mental health, you don’t have health’.”

mental health statistics in america

  • 5 in 1 adults experience mental illness each year
  • 1 in 20 adults experience serious mental illness every year
  • 6 in 1 6-17 year olds experience one mental health disorder each year
  • 50% Lifetime mental illnesses begin by age 14, and 75% by age 24

growing to meet demand

Although Davidson no longer struggles to prove its relevance to the counseling center (now called CAPS), there is still plenty of room for growth.

For example, staffing has become an issue across the country as campus counseling centers struggle to meet the growing need for mental health services. However, Davidson is excited to report that UNLV has seen a remarkable 50% staff expansion this year. The increase was made possible after the student mental health fee of $50 per semester is set to take effect in 2021.

“This is a wonderful opportunity,” says Davidson, “I greatly appreciate the UNLV President, the Consolidated Students of UNLV (CSUN), and the Graduate and Professional Student Union. These groups were instrumental in getting this approved, and made such a big difference in getting the staff we really needed. Once we complete this recruitment, we will 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, two psychiatrists, and also fill new support positions that include an associate director, wellness educator and administrative assistant. In total, CAPS will employ 21 counselors, two psychiatrists, two behavioral health providers, two psychiatric nurses and two health educators. Including administrative support, the CAPS team will total 33 employees serving UNLV’s community of 30,000 students.

This past fall, CAPS embedded two counselors (one psychologist and one therapist) in 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 expanded, to help faculty and staff better learn how to interact with at-risk and distressed students.

“CAPS services are a game-changer for students,” reports Chelsea Hoskinson, associate professor-in-residence in UNLV’s College of Education.

Hoskinson, who primarily teaches in the first- and second-year seminar programs, says her teaching and research is centered around student engagement and success.

“We spend a lot of time in first year seminar discussing the importance of developing psychosocial skills before we explore academic skill development. Without a strong foundation of positive psychosocial behaviours, it is very difficult to focus on learning and goal attainment. Understanding concepts around self-regulation and social integration can be made more personal when students use the services offered at CAPS.

CAPS uses a holistic approach to student wellness and is always evolving and experimenting with its approach to best treatment practices. It offers services such as outreach programming, workshops, consultations, individual and group therapy, same-day urgent services, and Therapy Assistance Online (TAO).

Students also have the option of joining an “Identity Space,” which is designed to be a safe space where they can process, receive support, share resources, and have an on-campus meeting. Can build community. Current identified spots include: Spot: Black Student Space; La Casa: Latinx student space; and Salam House: Muslim Student Space.

Davidson reports that CAPS’ most-used resources are individual and group therapy (with over 10,000 visits last year). Psychiatric services are also in demand, recently, with students coming to college with medications already prescribed. Nevertheless, Davidson stresses that CAPS’ takes a holistic view of the individual’s well-being and follows a “stepped care model”.

Davidson explains, “The stepped care model is really about making sure that you use your resources as efficiently as possible. So, the basic premise is to provide the person with the level of support that they need.”

For example, students may find that they only thrive in individual or group therapy or they may prefer a combination of therapy and prescribed medications. Others may want to build on the skills they develop in therapy by viewing CAPS’s collection of online self-help videos for more tips on reducing anxiety or getting a better night’s sleep. CAPS gives students access to resources like Cognito, a website that can help teach how to understand and talk about mental health.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that mental health concerns are a sign of weakness, and it’s not,” says Davidson. “Actually, one of the interesting things is that sometimes it’s our gifted students who will have mental health concerns. Luckily, we’re living in a time where professional athletes and celebrities will come out to talk about their challenges, right? To tell people, ‘I have this, yet I’ve been successful in my career.’

“People have this misconception that having a mental health problem means you are not good enough, or that you are broken or less than – which you are not. If we are being completely honest this is something we all do to some extent is near.”

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