The Counselor Is In

The Counselor in Academic Residence Program at the University of Texas at Austin places trained mental health professionals within the academic schools.

Asset 11.png
 

By Ivy Ashe
Population Health Scholar
University of Texas System
PhD Student in Journalism
UT Austin Moody College of Communication

 
 

Mental health concerns on a college campus aren’t uniform. The stresses experienced by a chemical engineer aren’t the same as those faced by a cello player. At the University of Texas at Austin, the Counseling and Mental Health Center addresses these differences with CARE: that is, with the Counselors in Academic Residence Program.

CARE_Team.jpg

The program, which will soon wrap its fifth year, embeds a licensed mental health counselor within academic units on campus.  Students are referred to CARE counselors by faculty, student advisors, mentors or other staff. Some of the larger units, like the Colleges of Natural Sciences and Liberal Arts, have a full-time counselor whose office is within the college. Other units share a counselor. Counselors work closely with deans’ offices and with academic staff and professors, providing not only short-term counseling but also case management and consultations. They build targeted workshops and presentations for student organizations and Freshman Interest Groups (FIGS) associated with the college or colleges in which they’re housed.

CARE was initially a Student Success Initiative at UT Austin, funded through the Provost’s Office. It lived up to its promise: CARE was so successful that it is now permanently funded by the university, itself.

“When I was first hired, I imagined this little program that we would do, and we would do our counseling and our outreach,” said CARE assistant director Laura Dupuis. “I never knew that we would be embraced as much as we have been. It feels like we really have helped reduce stigma in a bigger way.”

Having a counselor in residence decreases the physical distance between students and access to mental health resources. Doing so helps decrease barriers between students and access, normalizing mental health as an everyday part of life. Deans and faculty frequently comment to Dupuis and the CARE staffers about overcoming the stigma associated with seeking mental health help.

“The longer we’re there, the more open people are about coming to see us and about talking about mental health,” said Dupuis, a licensed clinical social worker.

It’s not only openness from students. Because CARE counselors attend department meetings and are a regular presence within the school, faculty and staff feel more supported as well, which facilitates referrals

“Before, when they had concerns about a student, they didn’t have a specific person they knew that they could call,” Dupuis said.

Counselors know the unique cultures of each school. Nathan Langfitt, for example, works in the College of Fine Arts. Langfitt is himself a musician, which comes in handy when working with students managing performance anxiety. In the McCombs School of Business, Toby Leblanc often works with perfectionism-related anxiety.

With the forthcoming addition of a counselor to support students in the College of Pharmacy and the School of Law, the CARE program will soon be affiliated with nearly all of UT Austin’s academic units. There is still room to grow, particularly in the larger schools that have tens of thousands of students enrolled.

CARE is particularly attuned to providing resources for students who might not know they are available, such as first-generation students or those from cultures that don’t usually access mental health services.

The overall UT campus environment has shifted in favor of promoting mental health services since Dupuis was an undergraduate there in the late 1980s (she also attended graduate school at UT).

“I’m not sure at that time that I thought of the counseling or mental health resources here,” she said. “I wasn’t even aware. It wasn’t talked about or promoted in class.”