What does it mean to be well? Unwell? To use UNLV President Keith E. Whitfield’s words: It’s OK to not be OK. For many of us, overcoming our own personal hurdles can sometimes feel like a bridge too far.
Jose Llanes is a junior at UNLV and has seen too many of his fellow students struggle to stay afloat when it comes to handling mental health.
“I’ve had friends drop out because of it,” said Llanes. “I’ve talked to them and they said if they had a place that could just give them reassurance, they’d still be in classes.”
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 on campus as possible.
“There are a lot of students that need our help and some just don’t know where to find it,” he said. “And Project Wellness is kind of a hub of all the resources on campus.”
Llanes is now president of the student-led organization, which has three main modes of help. The first is the mental health committee, which organizes workshops on campus focusing on trauma and depression. Second is fitness committee, which encourages stress relief through physical activity. Next, the international and transfer students committee provides as many resources as possible to a group that Llanes believes may feel lost at times.
“We don’t talk about school,” said Llanes. “Instead, we talk about how you’re truly feeling and what we can do to help.”
Students Take the Lead to Help Each Other
On the heels of the pandemic, UNLV held a town hall on mental health in October 2022. It discussed what instructors were hearing from students across campus. The momentum led to conversations within UNLV chapters of Alpha Epsilon Delta (a health pre-professional 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 hit the ground running in April 2023.
“Everybody knows that college and university students nationwide 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 faculty co-advisor for Project Wellness.
He says the work being done can be life saving and that, just by showing compassion, by understanding and listening, you can help someone. The pressures students experience often go beyond the stress of class projects and tests.
“Family life, stresses that are happening 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 am I going to get, am I going to be able to pay my bills, can I save for a house, can I save to have a family — those are the very real challenges that college students today are dealing with,” Bubb said.
Part of Project Wellness' strategy is removing barriers to access. Everyone is welcome and no one is turned away. Project Wellness has quickly grown into a network of more than 700 students who look out for each other. And the plan is to continue expanding, with newly minted partnerships involving the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine, Boyd School of Law, and Graduate College.
“I’ve participated in various projects in the past – you see it start off well and then slow down from a lack of passion,” said communications professor Ursula Kamanga, a co-advisor for Project Wellness. “That’s 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 the firsthand, present experience.
The initial founders of Project Wellness have all been 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 Student Association.
Project Wellness Gains National Attention
Project Wellness is already making considerable 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.
“Faculty need to come to our meetings and make this as well known to their students across the campus as possible,” said Kamanga. “The more minds that come together, the more we can strategize and manage our resources to better our students.”
Project Wellness is helping President Whitfield promote his next town hall on mental health, scheduled for Feb. 27 in the Student Union. Additionally, Project Wellness will host a panel discussion with the NWCCU on March 13.
“There are a lot of students who struggle silently, and it’s because they feel like their friends will judge them. They feel like their family will judge them,” said Llanes. “And I feel like if Project Wellness eliminates that stigma or at least helps to eliminate that stigma, then that would be absolutely incredible.”
Student Initiative Complements Extensive UNLV Programming
Mental health remains a top priority for UNLV with a bevy of existing programs readily 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’ve never stopped our interventions for bettering mental health,” said Jamie Davidson, associate vice president for student wellness.
Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, helped a record 900 students from Dec. 7-15, 2023, following the shooting tragedy on campus. CAPS offers free and confidential help from licensed professionals, counselors, social workers, therapists, and psychiatrists dedicated to meeting the needs of students. The 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 takes place in the initial hours and days,” said Davidson. “But it’s an ongoing effort is needed because different people heal in different times and in different ways. Some students are ready to talk about it right away, but for others, it may take another few months or longer until they are ready and that’s OK."
Most mental health needs emerge between 18-26 years old, according to Davidson. And providing quick and easy access to support is critical to successful interventions. This is why having resources that keep up with the times is so important – and that’s where digital programs such as Therapy Assistance Online (TAO) and You@UNLV come in. These online resources provide 24/7, It confidentially access to helps for students and faculty with anxiety, depression, stress, sleep problems, and plenty of other topics
“We have used a multi-faceted approach to spread the word of emotional well-being based on our comprehensive campus mental health strategy,” he said. “And Project Wellness has been yet another welcome addition to our overall wellness mental health initiative. We are excited to have students who are enthusiastic about mental health and want to help them do a good job.”
A recent federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) received by Davidson has also been helping UNLV improve itself in suicide prevention. The grant has enabled more than 1,600 members of the campus community to be trained in suicide response during 2023.
“Our staff is dedicated to our students and I’m blown away by their interest,” said Davidson. “Mental health is one of the biggest reasons students drop out of college and it takes a whole campus community coming together to help students and get them the support that they need.”
For some people, yoga is the answer. For others, it’s talking to a peer through Project Wellness. And yet for others, a licensed psychiatrist from CAPS helps most.
“We’re not asking everyone to become psychologists,” he said. “But we are asking everyone to display compassion and support for each other.”
Upcoming UNLV Mental Wellness Events
Here are some free, no-pressure, recurring events that campus community members are welcome to attend:
Free to campus community members in the SRWC
- Tuesdays from 6:30 p.m.- 7:30 p.m.
- Wednesdays from 12 p.m.- 1 p.m.
- Fridays from 6:30 a.m.- 7:30 a.m.
- Saturdays from 12 p.m.- 1 p.m.
Coping Corner: Tools to Navigate Trauma
A drop-in 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 10-11 a.m. or Thursdays from 3-4 p.m. to learn about mindfulness, distress tolerance, self-soothing, and emotion regulation.
For more information, contact CAPS at 702-895-3627 or email to Mallory Constantine.
Working Through Trauma Together
A counseling center therapy group specifically for students affected by the Dec. 6 campus shooting tragedy trauma process group based in Herman's three stage model. Sessions, which kick off Feb. 16, will be held on Fridays from 10:30 a.m. -12 p.m.
For more information on UNLV resources, visit the UNLV Wellness website.