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V6I3: Answering the Call to Address Mental and Physical Health of UNLV Students: The Evolution of Project Wellness

Jose Llanes, Project Wellness President, Biological Sciences Undergraduate, University of Nevada, Las Vegas 

Daniel Bubb, Associate Professor in Residence, Honors College, University of Nevada, Las Vegas 

Ursula Kamanga, Assistant Professor in Residence, Communication Studies, Honors College, University of Nevada, Las Vegas 

In October of 2022, UNLV hosted a town-hall style meeting addressing the challenges students face with mental health. A panel of experts composed of Dr. Jose Melendrez, Dr. Constance Brooks, and Dr. Jamie Davidson, and emcee Dr. Anne Weisman, and undergraduate students Matheu Nazareno and Jordan Sundara led the event that was the first of its kind. Like other colleges and universities across the country, UNLV had witnessed a substantial increase in the demand for mental health services. In fact, the demand for mental health services has resulted in longer wait times for individual therapy services as well as psychiatric services both on and off campus.  

According to the American Psychological Association, more than 60% of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health problem according to the Healthy Minds Study, which collects data from 373 campuses worldwide.  

In 2023, UNLV hosted a wellness fair that comprised two components. The first component was a town-hall style meeting where a panel of mental health experts talked about the staffing challenges colleges and universities are facing around the country with the increased demand for mental health services from students. The second part of the fair comprised more than thirty local, non-profit organizations that distributed literature about the services they provide. Both events were well-attended, and students provided positive feedback on UNLV’s initiative to increase access to mental health services. 

Following the wellness fair, a group of students approached Dr. Daniel Bubb, to express their interest in forming a Registered Student Organization that addresses not only mental health, but also physical health and assisting international students who are new to UNLV and Las Vegas. After much discussion, the students formed the organization, which they named Project Wellness. 

Essentially, Project Wellness was founded on one simple question: Why are so many students struggling with mental health at UNLV? Dr. Bubb and Dr. Kamanga, our advisors, accompanied by students who are prepared to make a change at UNLV, sought to answer that question. They discovered that the campus lacked a student-led mental health organization where students could interact with their peers. 

Dr. Bubb, Dr. Kamanga, and the founders of Project Wellness realized that having student-to-student conversations was effective in helping students handle their mental health challenges. This is because, as a student, one can relate more to the struggles of one’s peers and can offer active listening, support, and provision of resources effectively. This also meant that students could be more honest and open with their struggles, because the reality is that students are struggling with the same things. 

The mission of Project Wellness is threefold: 1) to provide a university campus community where students, faculty, and staff can feel comfortable talking about mental health without feeling intimidated or being bullied; 2) to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health; and, 3) to help UNLV students know they are not alone in their struggles with mental health.  

After approval from the Office of Students Affairs and with funding from the Consolidated Students of the University of Nevada (CSUN), Project Wellness officially became an organization that strives to improve the mental and physical wellness of UNLV students. 

The organization’s mission recognizes the importance of student mental health and wellbeing in all aspects of life, especially in an academic setting. To create a safe and supporting environment, Project Wellness hosts various activities at UNLV that relate to students. After appropriate training and in collaboration with Student Counseling & Psychological Services, we provide mental health workshops where students learn about mental health challenges, including recognizing symptoms of depression and imposter syndrome, and activities for stress-management and selfcare. Our monthly general meetings are designed to unite the campus for open conversation on mental health challenges and highlight the resources our campus and surrounding community members have to offer. 

To assist student peers, Project Wellness’ Executive Board enrolled in courses designed for helping college students who are mentally struggling. 

In an effort to provide comprehensive and dedicated support to UNLV’s students, the Project Wellness Executive Board members participated in the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) Certified Peer Education training, which members the tools and resources to help their peers make behavioral changes through sharpening their listening skills, empathizing with peers who are mentally struggling, and referring peers to resources.  

In addition, the Board members participated in the Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) and Skills for Psychological Recovery (SPR) training.  

QPR is a suicide prevention training program that helps students recognize the warning signs of someone who might be experiencing suicidal ideation or is going through a mental health emergency where they need immediate live-saving care. Project Wellness Executive Board members learned how to assess a peer’s situation, persuading that individual to not harm themselves, and refer them to a professional counselor so they can get the help they need. 

SPR is an evidence-informed modular intervention that aims to help survivors gain skills to manage distress and cope with post-disaster stress and adversity. Managing reactions, promoting helpful thinking, and promoting positive activities are just some of the skills people enrolled in this course learn to help their peers combat trauma. 

Beyond the comprehensive training, the Executive Board members also oversee three committees whose purpose and activities pertain to different aspects of mental health.  

The Fitness Committee seeks to improve student physical health, which is strongly correlated with mental health, by offering activities that include rigorous exercise. This could range from conducting trauma recovery yoga to dancing to K-Pop music.  

The International and Transfer Student committee is dedicated to assisting students who come from other countries by providing them invaluable resources and guidance to ensure a seamless transition to UNLV by showcasing all of the campus resources, aiding with class selection, and providing a supportive environment where one can share their struggles and challenges.  

The Mental Health Committee focuses on hosting regular mental health workshops addressing critical mental health topics such as recognizing symptoms of depression, recovering from mental trauma, and general mental wellness.  

We have implemented surveys that participants complete after each committee event. We have amassed over 50 surveys across the committees, and we have discovered 100% of the Fitness Committee participants thought the events were stress relieving, enjoyable, and made them feel better about themselves; similarly, 100% of the Mental Health Committee participants learned something new about mental health and the numerous mental health resources available to them about which they previously were unaware.  

We have learned that the work of Project Wellness is needed more than ever before, in light of students returning to campus after the COVID-19 pandemic and a mass shooting that took place on UNLV’s campus on December 6, 2023. Project Wellness’ leadership discovered that UNLV students were not the only ones dealing with depression and anxiety.  

The added stress of COVID-19, paired with the academic rigor of college and the abrupt change to an online environment, significantly affected student mental health nationwide. A report released by Healthy Minds based on web surveys of 96,000 US students from 133 campuses in the 2021-2022 academic year showed that overall, 44 percent of students have reported experiencing symptoms of depression, 37 percent anxiety, and about 15 percent said that they have considered suicide. 

More astonishingly, a recent article in the Nevada Independent showed that the situation is even worse for kindergarten through high school students in Nevada’s public schools where the ratio is one counselor for every 1,866 students. The alarming statistics from multiple national, regional, and local surveys demonstrate the importance of implementing a comprehensive population based, tiered approach to mental care, including, but not limited to education, peer support, and treatment level responses.  

Future goals include the aspiration to help the Clark County, Nevada School District, with for Project Wellness members who are certified through NASPA to interact with K-12 students and help mitigate the overwhelming burden placed on counselors. 

Project Wellness at the UNLV stands as a beacon of hope and support in addressing the pressing mental health challenges faced by college students. The initiative, born out of a genuine concern for the well-being of peers has evolved into a multifaceted approach that not only acknowledges the prevalence of mental health issues, but actively works towards destigmatizing and addressing them. As the organization continues to grow and make a positive impact, it serves as a testament to the transformative potential of student-led mental health initiatives in creating a campus environment where every student feels heard, supported, and understood.  

With a little more than one semester of being a Registered Student Organization, Project Wellness has already discovered the essential role it plays in helping students with mental health challenges at UNLV and hopes to be a model for other colleges and universities. 

Project Wellness urges other universities to establish student-run organizations dedicated to mental and physical health and wellbeing of all students by fostering an environment where students can access support, experience a sense of security, and achieve both academic and personal success. 

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