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The University of Kentucky announced a $500,000 investment into the campus's mental health resources on Feb. 21, 2020. Photo by Rick Childress

On Friday, UK Provost David Blackwell officially announced that the university's Mental Health Task Force has laid out its first set of recommendations to optimize student wellness.

A new recurring $500,000 investment will assist in the implementation of seven new hires in various mental health-related departments, suicide prevention training for all faculty and staff, a pilot program that will extend the hours of certain UK resource centers, and a centralized online portal where students can navigate the resources available to them on campus.

Each of these approved initiatives will be implemented during the 2020 spring semester, according to UK administrators.

These recommendations, a year in the making, come after the university established the Mental Health Task Force in spring 2019 as a response to growing concerns about the university's wellness resources.

President Capilouto's February 2019 promise to create such a task force came after two UK students died by suicide in two separate incidents and after a special edition of the Kentucky Kernel which focused completely on student mental health. 

The university's seven new staff members, currently being recruited, will be distributed across campus: two clinicians at the UK Counseling Center (UKCC), two consultants at the Disability Resource Center, a case manager for the Community of Concern, and two academic coaches at the Transformative Learning unit focused on helping students navigate testing anxiety and school-related stress.

Second, all UK faculty and staff will receive Question, Persuade and Refer (QPR) training sometime this semester as part of a suicide prevention initiative.

Third, after students return from Spring Break in mid-March, UK will jumpstart a pilot program to test the effectiveness of extended hours for certain campus resources.

As part of this program, every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 4:30 to 7 p.m., the Disability Resource Center housed on the fourth floor of the Multidisciplinary Science Building will transition into a one-stop-shop for students to navigate campus resources.

Staff members from UKCC, Disability Resource Center, Student Financial Wellness Center, Academic Coaching and the Community of Concern will be present for drop-in meetings with students whose schedules don’t allow them to meet during regular hours.  

The pilot will primarily assess the demand for extended hours and centralization of these resources, said Drew Smith, Assistant Provost for Health and Wellness. As students leave, they will have the option of filling out an online survey to assess the effectiveness of the program.

“Part of this is to think through long-term systemic changes,” said Kirsten Turner, Associate Provost for Academic and Student Affairs. “If the services are provided all the way up to 7 p.m., then do we start to think about additional hours after that? It could be iterative over time depending on what kind of volume we see and how we see it play out.”

Lastly, UK will seek to roll out a centralized online portal for students to find information on basic needs, mental health, and general wellness resources.  

It’s all part of a "holistic" approach to mental health on UK’s campus, Turner said. UK's goal is to direct students to the resources that best serve them from the onset, whether that's on or off campus.  

Turner said this could alleviate some of the pressure on the UK Counseling Center, which has experienced a significant increase in utilization over the past several years.

According to UKCC Director Dr. Mary Chandler Bolin there has been a 55 percent increase in clients seen for all UKCC services between the 2018 and 2019 fall semesters.

Last semester, UKCC saw a record 2,478 clients, which was 52 percent higher than the previous record broken during the 2019 spring semester.

To put this into perspective, if UKCC’s 19 clinical staff members had equivalent caseloads, this would equate to roughly 130 clients per counselor in the 2019 fall semester, compared to 85 during the 2019 spring semester.

“A decade ago, a greater proportion of clients were seen in weekly ongoing individual therapy for up to a semester—which is beyond our current scope of practice at UKCC— even as the UK administration has continued to fund increases to our clinical staffing,” Bolin told the Kernel.

Much of UKCC’s time and resources are spent on initial consultations with students who may not be best served by individual ongoing therapy. While these students may need other resources, such as academic coaching or group therapy or online resources, the process of redirecting them to the right place takes time, according to Bolin.

Looking forward, Turner says the UK's Mental Health Task Force will discuss the possibility of a “triage” or “help center” where students could go for initial screening before being directed to UKCC or another non-individual therapy-based service.

“Our goal is to get the Counseling Center in a place where they are able to work with clients more regularly and for the students who need the actual [individual] therapy,” Turner said. “We could build out that model to alleviate the pressure of the Counseling Center. They just don’t have the capacity, despite the increase in the number of counselors, to service everyone who is coming to them.”

While nothing has been decided yet, the task force is also discussing the possibility of moving UKCC from Frazee Hall to a new location, or locations, on campus after the building is renovated.

This is just one of many potential future initiatives.

“The wellness of our students—and our campus community—is everyone’s responsibility,” Smith said. “UK’s investments in people and programs demonstrate its commitment now and in the future to the well-being of our students.”

In the coming months, UK’s primary focus will be the implementation of these first round of recommendations. The task force’s next set of recommendations is tentatively planned for this May.

“Creating an environment where people’s holistic well-being is strong is vital to preparing students for a life of meaning and purpose,” Turner said. “From our perspective we’re doing all we can to reimagine our campus as a leader in holistic well-being.”