In 2001 the university established its most prestigious research honor, the Harry Reid Silver State Research Award, in recognition of the achievements of UNLV scholars in a wide variety of disciplines. Named for the U.S. senator who has been a longtime supporter of UNLV, the award recognizes faculty researchers who exemplify a commitment to advancing understanding of an array of issues that address the changing needs of our community, state, and nation. In 2013, the university awarded its most prestigious research award to UNLV psychology professor Brad Donohue for his work in developing family-supported interventions to assist in goal achievement.
As a graduate student in the late 1980s, psychology professor Brad Donohue was part of a research team that developed a clinical protocol known as Family Behavior Therapy, now commonly referred to as FBT.
The team was led by the late renowned psychologist Nathan Azrin, one of the first students in B.F. Skinner’s laboratory at Harvard to apply principles of reinforcement to enhance mental health in humans.
“He was considered one of the pioneers of behavioral analysis,” Donohue says, adding that he considers himself fortunate to have worked with Azrin.
Their research resulted in the development of FBT, which uses community-based reinforcement to help people enhance their relationships and personal conduct, avoid substance misuse, and improve employment and school performance.
“FBT involves a holistic ‘family,’ or team approach, to goal achievement,” says Donohue, who has applied FBT in a variety of contexts, conducting research on its effectiveness and helping clients along the way.
“We teach individuals how to set and reach goals using rewards as a catalyst for achievement,” he says. “These are goal-oriented therapies.”
As its name suggests, family involvement is key to the program; each member of an individual’s family helps him or her move toward desired outcomes. This approach has been reviewed positively by dozens of independent scientists in peer-reviewed journal articles.
Donohue’s research has primarily focused on analyzing the efficacy of FBT in clinical environments. He and his team have seen FBT reduce alcohol and drug use; improve mood, conduct, and family functioning; and augment school and workplace success.
His findings are well documented, and his approach is widely practiced. FBT is a standard treatment protocol being used by clinicians across the country today. He himself has applied the practice to a wide variety of settings, and his success has not gone unnoticed.
“Within our field he is a luminary,” says Mark Ashcraft, the chair of the UNLV psychology department. “He significantly influenced treatment of substance abuse with the development of Family Behavior Therapy.”
Donohue has authored more than 120 peer-reviewed journal articles and numerous academic textbook chapters. He is also the co-author of two textbooks, Treating Adolescent Substance Abuse Using Family Behavior Therapy and Treating Adult Substance Abuse Using Family Behavior Therapy.
Donohue’s work has also earned the attention of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other major federal agencies; he has been awarded more than $4 million in research funding since he joined the university in 1998.
Additionally, he now joins the elite group of recipients of the Harry Reid Silver State Research Award, an honor well suited to a researcher who focuses on the needs of Nevadans.
“Much of my research has focused on pressing social needs in the state while at the same time advancing mental health and economic prosperity among disadvantaged populations,” he says.
Through his research, Donohue is also training clinical psychology students both on FBT and on how to work with clients; he has mentored literally hundreds of graduate and undergraduate students throughout his career. He currently works with his team on campus at a facility called Family Research and Services.
One of his recent major research projects involved collaboration with Clark County’s Department of Family Services. Donohue led a study that involved mothers who had been reported for child neglect and drug use. The study was funded by a $1.2 million grant from the National Institute for Drug Abuse, which provided money to help Clark County social caseworkers learn and use FBT over the course of nearly five years.
During this time, Donohue and his team of students worked together with the caseworkers to examine the efficacy of a home-based FBT. Compared with the usual forms of treatment, FBT showed very promising outcomes, resulting in an increase in employment and a reduction of child maltreatment potential, as well as a diminished hard drug use. However, Donohue believes additional research in this area should be conducted to determine which mothers respond best to FBT.
Donohue led another project working with Clark County, this time with the Business Development Division, as well as the City of Las Vegas, to facilitate higher-order employment with predominately low-income and/or ethnic minority youth.
Called the Summer Business Institute, the program provided extensive training and mentoring to participants. With a team of UNLV students and county officials and staff, Donohue helped young people deal with real-world employment experiences and gave them financial management training. His study on the effectiveness of this program was the first to evaluate such programs using controlled methodology in an ethnic minority youth population.
“The outcomes were again very positive, with many of the participants improving their knowledge of financial management and employment-related efforts,” Donohue says.
Today, Donohue is taking his passion for FBT to a new group – college athletes. In 2012 he received a four-year, $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the efficacy of a performance-based FBT among collegiate athletes.
“This is the first grant award of its kind by the National Institute of Health, and UNLV was chosen as the trial site,” Donohue says. He adds that NIH is interested in understanding how traditional, individual-based campus counseling (which is offered through UNLV’s Counseling and Psychological Services) and family-based performance programming (using FBT) influence goal achievement in student athletes.
Donohue identifies five primary aims in his current study: management of or abstinence from substance use; avoidance of unsafe sexual practices; improved quality of relationships; mental health/strength; and sports performance.
In addition to supporting student athletes, this program provides training opportunities for those interested in this research specialty, including two post-doctoral fellows, six clinical doctoral candidates, and more than 15 undergraduate students per semester. Additionally, the program provides a federally funded referral source for UNLV Athletics, UNLV Wellness, and UNLV intramural sports programs.
Donohue has named the family-based experimental program “TOPPS,” which stands for “The Optimum Performance Program in Sports,” and he is very clear about its goals.
“This is a coaching program to help student athletes achieve optimum performance,” he says. “It is designed to train elite athletes and coaches in optimum sport and life performance through applied research, with an emphasis on sports and academic performance.”
In addition to conducting performance research with athletes, Donohue and his team have developed several non-study performance curriculums at TOPPS to assist athletes in achieving their goals. They address impulse control, financial management, social communication skills, emotional management, and career planning.
While TOPPS is open to all student athletes to assist in any performance-related issue, Donohue is especially interested in working with athletes who have identified drugs or alcohol as a factor in negative performance.
He noted that college athletes face unique stressors that put them at increased risk of using or misusing substances. According to Donohue, nationwide data suggests greater than 50 percent of students in college, including student athletes, participate in dangerous alcohol and drug use patterns, such as binge drinking.
Donohue cites increased social anxieties in adjusting to a new environment, new people, and the demands of academic success as factors contributing to substance use and misuse among college students. He notes that student athletes have the added burden of performance-related demands, travel, and intensive practice and competitions, in addition to academic responsibilities, that must be met.
In the TOPPS program, Donohue works to encourage participation in his program by providing an athlete-friendly environment. He displays photos of UNLV athletes, UNLV sport insignia, and UNLV team schedules on the walls of the Family Research and Services offices, where he and his team work. Interactions with student athletes are referred to as team meetings, and the program meets athletes on their terms, whether it’s in the office, at the practice field, or in the locker room. All interactions are confidential.
It also helps to have several members of the TOPPS team who have a background in athletics. Two post-doctoral students on the project, Miesha Marzell and Graig Chow, were college athletes, and TOPPS team coordinator Yulia Gavrilova was a competitive swimmer in Russia. Donohue himself was a national amateur boxing champion in 1986, and he has served on several athletic commissions and as a consultant to various teams at UNLV.
Donohue is very committed to the research component of this program.
“These trials shift our focus to a population for which no evidence-based interventions have been developed,” Donohue says. “In athletics, the norm is to involve a support team. Utilizing this model, performance programming at TOPPS incorporates coaches, teammates, and any significant others who are considered part of the ‘family’ unit.”
Donohue is optimistic about the future use of the TOPPS approach in the context of sports. If his research demonstrates the effectiveness of performance programming in student athletes, it could be used as the model to improve performance among sports teams across the country.
Once his current study has been completed, Donohue hopes to explore whether TOPPS is effective with high school and/or professional athletes.
“There are tremendous opportunities for advancing knowledge in this area,” says Donohue, “and very positive potential outcomes for student athletes.”