Twenty-eight years ago when Jamie Davidson, Ph.D., left the University of Georgia for UNLV, he didn’t expect that he would need to justify to the then-administration the necessity of the counseling center’s mental health services.
“They told me that they were going to close the counseling center,” Davidson recalls, after the center’s director quit. “And I was like, ‘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 Wellness Center, provides a variety of services to helpstudents address mental health concerns. (Becca Schwartz/UNLV).Now the associate vice president for student wellness at UNLV — which encompasses a long list of responsibilities such as overseeing the Student Health Center, Student Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), and Behavioral Health Team — he can look back and see how far UNLV (and CAPS) has progressed in prioritizing mental wellness.
“We still have a counseling center, so I guess you know that they decided to keep it open,” he jokes.
But, at the time, he felt dejected. It took a conversation with his wife for him to “find my moxie” and confront the administration about what it would take to keep the center open.
Davidson recounts, “The administrator said: ‘Besides helping students, I want to know the counseling’s center’s impact on academic success and on student retention.'”
Although such research is prevalent now, 28 years ago, with only himself and an extremely small staff, Davidson says he had to get creative with how to gather and assess such statistics.
“By collecting the data, one of the things we showed is that by offering counseling — not only do students get better, which is what you’d expect — 85% said that counseling helped their academics. Because when you’re struggling with a well-being issue, it’s really difficult to focus and study.”
Davidson and his team also assessed students for dropout risk, and those who had considered withdrawing from UNLV were tracked as they progressed through treatment.
The results? Davidson says that students who completed counseling were retained at a higher level by the university even though they’re considered at-risk. Good news considering a 2019 American Council of Education study found that one in three students “meet 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 entirely.
“It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy,” says Davidson. “When you help students meet their core needs, it can have a profound impact. Not only on their emotional well-being, but their ability to academically succeed. I like to think it’s part of laying a cornerstone of wellness for their whole life. As the surgeon general said, ‘If you don’t have mental health, you don’t have health’.”
Mental Health Stats in the U.S.
1 in 5 adults experience mental illness each year
1 in 20 adults experience serious mental illness each year
1 in 6 youth ages 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year
50% of lifetime mental illnesses begin by age 14, and 75% by age 24
Growing to Meet Demand
Although Davidson no longer has to fight to prove the relevancy of the counseling center (now referred to as CAPS), there’s still a lot of room for growth.
Staffing, for example, has become an issue across the country as campus counseling centers struggle to keep up with the growing need for mental health services. However, Davidson is excited to report that UNLV has seen a notable 50% staff expansion this year. The increase was made possible after a student mental health fee of $50 a semester went into effect fall 2021.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity,” says Davidson, “I’m so appreciative of the UNLV president, of Consolidated Students of UNLV (CSUN), and the Graduate and Professional Student Association. These groups were instrumental in getting that approved, and it just made such a huge difference to get the staffing 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 to add six additional counselors, two psychiatrists, and will 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 wellness educators. Including administrative support, the CAPS team will total 33 employees to serve 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 summer 2023. Next semester, Mental Health First Aid and suicide prevention trainings will be greatly expanded, helping faculty and staff to better assist in how to have conversations with at-risk and distressed students.
“CAPS services are a game changer for students,” reports Chelsie Hawkinson, associate professor-in-residence in UNLV’s College of Education.
Hawkinson, who primarily teaches in the First- and Second-Year Seminar program, says her teaching and research are 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 the strong foundation of positive psychosocial behaviors, it is very difficult to focus on learning and goal achievement. Understanding concepts around self-regulation and social integration can be made more personal when students utilize services offered at CAPS.”
CAPS employs a holistic approach to student wellness and is always evolving and experimenting with its approaches toward best treatment practices. It provides services such as outreach programming, workshops, consultation, 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, get support, share resources, and build a community on campus. Current identity spaces include: The Spot: Black Student Space; La Casa: Latinx Student Space; and Salam House: Muslim Student Space.
Davidson reports that CAPS’ most-frequently used resources are individual and group therapy (with over 10,000 visits this past year). There’s also a demand for psychiatric services since, more recently, students are coming into college with previously prescribed medications. Yet, Davidson stresses that CAPS’ approaches wellness of the individual as a whole and adheres to the “Stepped Care Model.”
Davidson explains, “The Stepped Care Model is really about making sure that you use the resources you have as efficiently as possible. So, the basic premise is to provide the individual the level of support they need.”
For example, students may find they thrive in individual or group therapy only or they may prefer a combination of therapy and prescribed medications. Others may want to build on the skills they’re developing in therapy by viewing CAPS’s collection of online self-help videos for more tips for reducing anxiety or getting a better night’s sleep. CAPS also gives students access to resources like Kognito, a website that can help teach how to approach the topic of mental health and how to have a conversation about it.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that mental health concerns are a sign of weakness, and it’s not,” Davidson says. “Actually, one of the interesting things is that sometimes it’s our brightest students that will have mental health concerns. Fortunately, we’re living in a time where professional athletes and celebrities will come out to talk about their own challenges, right? To let people know, ‘I have this, yet I have succeeded in my career.’
“People have this misconception that having a mental health issue somehow means you’re not good enough, or you’re broken or deficient — which you’re not. It’s just something that we all have to some degree if we’re completely honest.”