January 31, 2020

In-house counselors boost mental health access for students

Megan Lawrence
Craig Chandler | University Communication

Craig Chandler | University Communication
Through Nebraska's new Counselor-in-Residence program, graduate student Megan Lawrence is working inside of Abel-Sandoz residence halls to bring mental health services to the building's nearly 1,500 students.

On a busy college schedule, it can be tough for students to make time for their mental health.

But what if a counseling office was just a short walk away from their dorm room or dining hall?

That premise is being put to the test this year through the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s new Counselor-in-Residence program, which places trained mental health professionals directly inside of residence halls across campus.

The program began in August 2019 with the placement of Megan Lawrence, a marriage and family therapy graduate student, in Abel-Sandoz — and Lawrence said she’s already seeing its benefits in action.

“I can imagine that some students I see would try to seek out the counseling services regardless,” she said. “But for some of them, the reality that it is right here as they pass by each day is what encouraged them to try it.”

Lawrence works in Abel-Sandoz 20 hours a week and maintains a flexible schedule for students seeking help, including coming in on weekends. Her office — a renovated study room with alterations made for privacy — is on the first floor of the building near the welcome center. Students can visit on an unlimited basis free of charge.

Being located directly where students live, Lawrence said, has unique advantages.

“While I’m here, typically I’ll eat in the dining hall, and I have the opportunity to meet a lot of students that way,” Lawrence said. “I’ll sit down with students who are eating and ask if I can share my meal with them, and for a lot of students, that’s the first time they learn about it. They’re really encouraged by it, and they want to share it with their friends. I think just being around students and being engaged with them is helpful.”

Megan Lawrence
Craig Chandler | University Communication
According to Lawrence, the close proximity of a counseling office in their residence hall is encouraging more students in Abel-Sandoz to reach out for help.

Building off the success of the Abel-Sandoz program, the university will place additional counselors in Harper-Schramm-Smith, Knoll Residential Center and University Suites next fall with support from a Women Investing in Nebraska grant. Depending on future funding, the program may eventually expand to academic colleges, as well.

Laurie Bellows, interim vice chancellor for student affairs, sees the Counselor-in-Residence program as just one piece of a larger holistic effort to make mental health a priority on campus. Over the last several years, the university has expanded the number of visits students can make to Counseling and Psychological Services, implemented a suicide prevention gatekeeper training program, established a peer coaching well-being program and, beginning this semester, will support a collegiate recovery community for students looking to separate from alcohol or drug addiction.

According to Bellows, investing in programs that deal with the prevention side of mental health — including strengthening how students respond to stress, reducing risk factors and identifying early symptoms — is a key priority for the university.

“At UNL, we are striving to bring student mental health care ‘upstream’ before challenges become a crisis,” Bellows said.

“This approach moves resources and services into prevention efforts, which are more likely to have a longer-term, positive impact on students’ mental health.”

In the meantime, Lawrence is looking forward to helping more Abel-Sandoz students this spring.

“I have lots of hopes for this semester,” she said. “I think there’s lots of potential here.”