What does it mean to be well? Sick? To use the words of UNLV President Keith E. Whitfield: It’s okay to not be okay. For many of us, overcoming our personal obstacles can sometimes seem like a bridge too far.
Jose Llanes is a junior at UNLV and has seen many of his fellow students struggle to stay afloat when it comes to mental health treatment.
“I’ve had friends drop out of school because of it,” Llanes said. “I talked to them and they said if they had a place that could give them security, they would still be in the classroom.”
Personal anecdotes like that inspired Llanes to devote his time and effort to what would become Project Wellness — a mental health initiative and registered student organization with the goal of helping as many people as possible on campus.
“There are many students who need our help and some just don’t know where to find it,” he said. “And Project Wellness is kind of the hub of all the resources on campus.”
Llanes is now president of the student-led organization, which has three main ways of helping. The first is the mental health committee, which organizes workshops on campus focusing on trauma and depression. The second is the fitness committee, which encourages stress relief through physical activity. The international and transfer student committee then provides as many resources as possible to a group that Llanes believes can sometimes feel lost.
“We don’t talk about school,” Llanes said. “Instead, we talk about how you really feel and what we can do to help.”
Students take the lead in helping each other
At the end of the pandemic, UNLV held a mental health town hall in October 2022. It discussed what instructors were hearing from students across campus. The momentum led to conversations within the UNLV chapters of Alpha Epsilon Delta (a pre-professional health honor society), the American Medical Student Association and the Muslim Student Association about starting a student organization dedicated to mental health. And after some planning and collaboration, Project Wellness was ready to break ground in April 2023.
“Everyone knows that college and university students across the country are struggling with mental health, but the question is, what are colleges and universities doing about it?” said Dan Bubb, an Honors College professor and co-faculty advisor for Project Wellness.
He says that the work being done can be life-saving and that only by showing compassion, understanding and listening can you help someone. The pressures students experience often go beyond the stress of class projects and tests.
“Family life, stresses going on at home, financial stresses, relationship stresses, wondering what’s in the future of this country, wondering what’s in the future of this world, what job will I get , am I going to be able to pay my bills, can I save for a house, can I save to have a family — these are the very real challenges facing college students today,” Bubb said.
Part of the Wellness Project’s strategy is to remove barriers to access. All are welcome and no one is left out. Project Wellness has quickly grown into a network of more than 700 students who care for each other. And the plan is to continue expanding, with newly formed partnerships that include the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine, the Boyd School of Law and the Graduate College.
“I’ve participated in different projects in the past — you see it start well and then slow down from a lack of passion,” said communications professor Ursula Kamanga, a co-advisor for Project Wellness. “That is not the case here. We have the passion.”
She says the key to the program’s success is letting students take the lead because they have direct, present-day experience.
The original founders of Project Wellness were all UNLV students: Matheu Nazareno, Jordan Sundara and Jeremy Batu came from Alpha Epsilon Delta. Christine Buena came from the American Medical Student Association. Zain and Maryam Raja came from the Muslim Students Association.
The Wellness Project gains national attention
Project Wellness is already making significant progress. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), UNLV’s accrediting agency, has taken notice and wants Project Wellness to serve as a model for other schools.
“Faculties should come to our meetings and make this known as best they can to their students across campus,” Kamanga said. “The more minds that come together, the more we can strategize and manage our resources to improve our students.”
Project Wellness is helping President Whitfield promote his upcoming town hall on mental health, scheduled for February 27 in the Student Union. Additionally, Project Wellness will host a panel discussion with NWCCU on March 13.
“There are many students who struggle in silence and this is because they think their friends will judge them. They think their family is going to judge them,” Llanes said. “And I think if Project Wellness eliminates that stigma or at least helps eliminate that stigma, then that would be absolutely incredible.”
The Student Initiative complements the extensive UNLV programming
Mental health remains a top priority for UNLV with a number of existing programs available to students, faculty and staff. UNLV offers support through mental and social wellness resources, on your phone, face-to-face interaction, and yes, even AI.
“We have never stopped our interventions to improve mental health,” said Jamie Davidson, associate vice president for student well-being.
Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, helped a record 900 students from December 7-15, 2023, following the tragedy of the campus shooting. CAPS provides free and confidential assistance from licensed professionals, counselors, social workers, therapists and psychiatrists dedicated to meeting the needs of students. Services are located in the Student Recreation and Wellness Center, with same-day appointments welcome.
“When you look at a crisis situation, there’s an initial response that happens in the initial hours and days,” Davidson said. “But it’s an ongoing effort that’s necessary because different people heal at different times and in different ways. Some students are ready to talk about it right away, but for others, it may take a few months or more until they’re ready, and that’s okay.”
Most mental health needs arise between the ages of 18-26, according to Davidson. And providing quick and easy access to support is essential to successful interventions. That’s why having resources that keep up with the times is so important – and that’s where digital programs like Therapy Assistance Online (TAO) and You@UNLV come in. These online resources provide 24/7, confidential access to help for students and faculty with anxiety, depression, stress, sleep problems, and many other topics.
“We’ve taken a multi-pronged approach to getting the word out about emotional wellness based on our comprehensive campus mental health strategy,” he said. “And Project Wellness has been another welcome addition to our overall mental health initiative. We are excited to have students who are enthusiastic about mental health and want to help them do good work.”
A recent federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) received by Davidson has also helped UNLV improve suicide prevention. The grant has enabled more than 1,600 members of the campus community to be trained in suicide response through 2023.
“Our staff is dedicated to our students and I am amazed at their interest,” Davidson said. “Mental health is one of the biggest reasons why students drop out of college, and it takes an entire campus community to come together to help students and get them the support they need.”
For some people, yoga is the solution. For others, it’s talking to a colleague through Project Wellness. And yet for others, a CAPS-licensed psychiatrist helps more.
“We’re not asking everyone to become a psychologist,” he said. “But we are asking everyone to show compassion and support for each other.”
Upcoming UNLV Mental Health Events
Here are some recurring free, no-pressure events that members of the campus community are welcome to attend:
Free to members of the campus community at SRWC
- Tuesdays from 18:30-19:30
- Wednesdays from 12:00 – 13:00
- Fridays from 6:30-07:30
- Saturdays from 12:00 – 13:00
The Coping Corner: Tools to Navigate Trauma
An initial group designed to assist students, faculty, and staff in the aftermath of traumatic events through psychoeducation and skill building. Join in person or via Zoom on Wednesdays from 10-11am or Thursdays from 3-4pm to learn about mindfulness, distress tolerance, self-soothing and emotion regulation.
For more information, contact CAPS at 702-895-3627 or email Mallory Constantine.
Working through trauma together
A central counseling therapy group specifically for students affected by the December 6 campus shooting trauma process group based on Herman’s three-stage model. Sessions, which begin on February 16, will be held on Fridays from 10.30am to 12pm.
For more information on UNLV resources, visit the UNLV Wellness website.