Article by Nick Knopik, contributing writer and former assistant director of leadership and service
Dr. Courtney East’s eyes lit up as she recalled the moment she learned Doane was awarded $306,000 in grant funding.
“Complete shock. Even though we were really proud of the work we did and we thought we had a great application, this is a highly competitive grant,” said East, associate professor for Doane’s Master of Arts in Counseling (MAC) program.
The grant is from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a U.S. government agency focused on public health efforts to promote mental health and prevent substance misuse. In 2022, SAMHSA allocated $2.2 million in grant money for colleges and universities looking to enhance their campus mental health services — and Doane was one of just 22 institutions to receive those funds.
As project director for the SAMHSA grant, East took a moment to celebrate and then got right back to work. The first step? Finding a team to strategize how best to use the funding to serve Doane students’ behavioral health needs for the duration of the grant over the next three years.
That team turned out to be Darcy Dawson, director of Doane’s Counseling Center, and Briana Guevara, hired as project coordinator of the SAMHSA grant. Along with East, they form the Tigers Together committee.
In the Counseling Center, Dawson and her staff provide free counseling for students. As a two-time Doane grad, she deeply understands the mental health landscape at Doane and cares deeply about the well-being of students.
“Helping people feel better is basically why I got into this work,” Dawson said.
There’s no session limit for students, which keeps the counseling center busy for Dawson and two other licensed mental health counselors.
They see every Doane student who makes a counseling appointment, and sometimes, the demand for counseling outpaces staff availability.
With the SAMHSA grant, Dawson can now hire two MAC interns and a graduate student to expand the counseling center’s capacity.
Dawson said that the grant also opens opportunities to share information about mental health resources with more students. In the fall of 2023, these efforts began even before classes started.
As part of Tiger Takeoff in early August, incoming students attended Tiger Wellness sessions, which included an overview of the mental health resources on campus and information on red flags to look for in their fellow students, like behavior changes. One week later, every first-year student received Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) suicide prevention training during fall orientation.
Dawson is also exploring how the SAMHSA grant can expand the work of Active Minds. This student organization promotes mental health awareness, providing peer-to-peer education and events, like Colors for Hope.
“When the students talk about mental health in front of their peers, that goes way further than some old lady telling them to come to counseling,” she said half-joking.
As project coordinator, Guevara is now leading some of the other work Doane has done for years in supporting student mental health, like programming during national suicide prevention week and offering counseling services to Doane’s non-residential students on the Lincoln campus.
Guevara also created an emergency response crisis protocol and implemented a virtual learning platform called Kognito. Kognito offers simulated scenarios about approaching and talking with someone experiencing a mental health crisis.
“[Kognito] is really about educating students on the right ways to go about handling someone who might have mental health issues or might possibly be suicidal,” Guevara said.
Part of Guevara’s role is to ensure that information about mental health resources is easily accessible to all students. Guevara increased the prevalence of printed flyers and brochures on the Crete and Lincoln campuses. She also developed a Tigers Together Instagram page that shares tips and reminders to students about managing their mental health during a busy school year.
That repeated exposure to campus resources and conversations about mental health is something that all three members of the Tigers Together team emphasized as they spoke about the SAMHSA grant.
“You talk about it, you talk about it, you talk about it. That’s decreasing the stigma,” East said. “The more we can talk about these things in a way that’s supportive, that’s how you get students to engage.”
Decreasing the stigma about mental health on college campuses is more important than ever. National College Health Assessment data show rising levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation among U.S. college students. In a report from 400 University presidents, 81% acknowledged that student mental health was more of a priority for their campuses than in the past, and 72% used additional funding to combat mental health concerns.
Doane is no exception. But that’s one of the reasons Dawson is proud to work here, at an institution where supporting student mental health is a clear priority.
In 2021, the first steps were taken toward that goal. Doane’s leadership team created a mental health task force to investigate strengths and gaps in the university’s mental health services. The task force included leadership team members, staff, faculty and students. The task force sent out surveys about how Doane could better address its students' and employees' mental health needs. After months of collecting data and writing reports, the task force presented findings and recommendations to the leadership team.
It was clear that outside funding would go a long way in addressing those recommendations, East said. In spring 2022, a team of Doane employees — including East — began meeting weekly to work on the SAMHSA grant proposal.
“We hammered out some of our goals, put it together, and crossed our fingers,” East said.
All of their work paid off, and Tigers Together will continue to support Doane with a well-funded team dedicated to student wellness.