Mental health resources are expanding for UNM students, thanks to a new collaboration between the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) and El Centro de la Raza. The effort is in the name: The Mental Health Collaborative (MHC).
The alliance also includes Vassar Hall on North Campus. It’s a broad reach, but a centralized purpose: providing assistance to others. That takes the shape of counseling, advocacy, assisting with accessing housing and food resources, and social work case management services.
“It's not just the academic issues people are having,” Social Worker and MHC Program Specialist Miquela Ortiz Upston said. “Usually if there are academic issues there are other issues going on. I really saw a need for social work on UNM campus during my time in various positions.”
Counseling services have always been offered through the WRC since its founding 50 years ago. WRC has also been a supervision site for students in UNM’s Masters of Counseling Program completing their internship for many years.
After student feedback over the last year however, program managers recognized a need for long-term, consistent venues for marginalized populations to receive culturally specific services and training in the counseling profession.
“We thought, wouldn't it be more powerful if we joined forces? We wanted to create a holistic approach to it. How do two student ethnic centers work together?” Licensed Counselor and Program Coordinator Ivette Acevedo Weatherholtz said.
That was where El Centro came in, with the help of a one-time $50,000 grant from the Higher Education Department which allowed for the founding of a counseling space at El Centro and proper equipment.
“We really hope to create a safe environment for our diverse student population that accommodates their needs instead of the other way around, “ Acevedo Weatherholtz said.
Together, they recruited a handful of experienced graduate students, enrolled in counseling and social work programs to be the rock for these students, at all three spots on campus. There are also eight separate interns offering bilingual and bicultural counseling and case management assistance.
“It's really hard for minority students to want to seek counseling services that don't reflect their diversity,” Acevedo Weatherholtz said. “So we are attracting a lot of Black, Indigenous and people of color counselors in training that do reflect that diversity.”
She added there is also a focus on multiculturalism, social justice and intercultural dialogue in the professional training interns receive through the MHC.
“It is really neat to see how we are opening doors and spaces to see representation in the mental health field.” – MHC Program Coordinator Ivette Acevedo Weatherholtz
As a federally designated Hispanic-serving institution, the need for bilingual and bicultural counselors and case workers on campus has become even more clear.
“Marginalized populations have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic,” Ortiz Upston said. “I think being able to provide these services for our marginalized population is essential.
It’s mutually beneficial as well, not just to those receiving help, but to those giving it. Each qualified intern is not just providing bilingual assistance, counseling, or social work, but is also getting crucial experience and feedback for their career.
“The great thing about using students is not only do we benefit by providing services and having a greater capacity to do so, but we are also providing a site for learning,” Ortiz Upston said.
Eventually, the MHC hopes to expand collaborative partnerships to be able to provide internship opportunities for students in more fields and degrees, like psychology.
“We hope to create an internship experience that supports our students, but also provides needed services to our student population dealing with issues like racial trauma, and gender violence, while creating spaces that are safe and going to students,” Acevedo Weatherholtz said.
Right now, the MHC is lending an ear to 50 students just through counseling. Just this past spring, WRC Counseling provided over 600 clinical hours of free counseling to students and staff across campus.
“We’re serving 50 students right now, but we’re serving 50 students that really, really need it,” Acevedo Weatherholtz said. “I think COVID-19 really brought attention to and exacerbated mental health needs.”
The new graduate social work interns also provided 345 service hours in that same time frame. They focused on serving those who need it with SNAP, EBT and Medicaid assistance. Others are assisted in applying for insurance.
“I think of it largely as a triage,” Ortiz Upston said. “It’s really figuring out when they go in, what are the services that will benefit them in the situation they're experiencing?”
This semester, that total has risen to over 1,250 hours. The need, MHC leaders agree, is dire.
For those not fully comfortable on receiving assistance in person, there are also options for telehealth, thanks, in part, to a one-time $30,000 grant from the Provost’s office.
“I think what we offer is unique. It’s bilingual services and utilizing students to help in this effort,” Ortiz Upston said.
While other great resources exist like Student Health and Counseling (SHAC) she says all that’s provided at the MHC is special, and not redundant for any other service on campus. That’s largely because, they say, the MHC services are free and therefore accessible to any student regardless of whether they have health insurance.
“We are excited about and appreciate all the work that has been done across the entirety of campus in the area of mental health and wellness,” El Centro Director Rosa Isela Cervantes said. “We are excited to extend and contribute to the collective work to meet student needs and support them in their academic journey and lifelong goals."
As one of the sites for confidential advocacy on campus with a long history of providing trauma mitigation in response to domestic and dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking, WRC is also providing counseling interns with specialized training in responding to gender-based violence.
“Advocacy is a lot more urgent, something severe,” Acevedo Weatherholtz said. “Of course they need counseling, but at the moment they really just need to get through the legal aspect of it. They realize they do have rights.”
It still all goes back to counseling, however, and the very basic act of destigmatizing the mental health assistance so many need on campus. Coming out of the pandemic, they emphasize, there are many who need help, but are stuck on waitlists, or without an avenue for their real-world problem.
“A lot of places are at capacity, so being able to offer these resources in different areas is vital to student well-being at UNM,” Ortiz Upston said. “The needs that we’re seeing now are different. They were large before but they are growing and they're gonna continue to grow.”
While the social work component is about halfway through its pilot year, Acevedo Weatherholtz and Ortiz Upston believe they have a foundation set for future investments in the years to come.
“It's important we do have that support, so a program like this is long-lasting and sustainable, and students that need this support have it available to them,” Ortiz Upston said.
They are currently seeking other funding sources for long-term sustainability for this essential pilot.
“While we are working towards achieving our mission, our mission, the goals for future, I think that in the meantime we’re also providing a space that's really needed and important in destigmatizing mental health,” Acevedo Weatherholtz said.
You can reach out directly to the MHC depending on your needs. Those emails are different for counseling and social work services. Students can also learn more about the collaborative at the Women’s Resource Center . Resources can also be found at El Centro de la Raza.