As Angela Ryan wrapped up her pre-doctoral internship at Virginia Tech’s Cook Counseling Center, she began the process of searching for a full-time position.

Fortunately for her and for Virginia Tech, her search radius never extended beyond the campus boundary.

Ryan, who received her doctoral degree from Regent University, is one of four new mental health counselors hired this summer by Virginia Tech. That university officials wanted to add staffing to meet the ever-growing demands for mental health services comes as no surprise. But they are taking a unique approach to meeting those demands.

Rather than house the four counselors at Cook Counseling Center or at one of the center’s satellite offices on campus, university officials are embedding these new counselors within three separate colleges, putting them closer to the students who traverse those hallways every day and to the faculty members who instruct them.

Ryan is embedded within the Pamplin College of Business, while Ashli Sharpton works in the College of Science, Kathryn Mustard in the College of Engineering, and Julie Kaplan services Virginia Tech students on the Northern Virginia campus.

In choosing to place Mustard in the College of Engineering, Ryan in the Pamplin College of Business, and Sharpton in the College of Science, Tech administrators elected to place individual counselors in the three larger colleges on campus.

“I was really interested to plug into it,” Ryan said of her new role. “I’m really interested in doing things like prevention work and outreach, and this type of position is really designed to do things like that.”

The move to add more embedded counselors was an idea that came out of a 22-page Virginia Tech Mental Health Task Force report in March 2019. In the fall of 2018, Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke formed an eight-member task force to analyze how Virginia Tech addressed mental health after the number of students receiving services at Cook Counseling Center increased 43 percent during a five-year span from 2013-17.

Clarke wanted the task force, chaired by Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Chris Wise, to identify factors affecting the mental health of Virginia Tech students; address issues associated with the university’s mental health services; address existing needs; and proactively plan for future support of mental health programs at the university.

For more on Cook Counseling Center, mental health and addictions, and all the programs of support offered to Virginia Tech students, please check out this story in the spring issue of Virginia Tech Magazine.

While embedded counselors are a relatively new concept, Virginia Tech has had some embedded counselors already. Gary Bennett, a veteran counselor at Cook, serves as an associate athletics director for sport psychology within the Virginia Tech Athletics Department and has been helping student-athletes with mental health issues on a full-time basis since 2007. Bennett meets with student-athletes, attends practices and games, handles programming on mental health-related issues, and more.

Also, separate counselors reside in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in Roanoke, Virginia. The student-athletes, the students in veterinary medicine and at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine face rigorous demands and complicated daily schedules, making visits to Cook Counseling Center for a consultation a near impossibility. Now, those students have easier access to counselors.

Gary Bennett talking to a student-athlete
Gary Bennett has been embedded within the Virginia Tech Athletics Department on a full-time basis since 2007, and Virginia Tech officials continue to expand on that model by adding four counselors in individual colleges over the summer. Photo courtesy of Dave Knachel, Virginia Tech Athletics.

Officials know the model works — and they’ve decided to double down on it.

“When students have really difficult schedules or tight schedules, it’s hard for them to feel like they have enough time to make an initial contact with the counseling center,” said Christopher Flynn, executive director of mental health initiatives at Virginia Tech. “They now can get easy access to speak to a counselor and have an informal conversation before they go through the formal intake process.

“The counselors are there to meet with some of those students that are connected to the college, and they’re there to work with faculty and staff in the administration to make sure that any concerns faculty and staff have get addressed as well.”

The model of embedding more counselors within the colleges eases the scheduling burdens at Cook Counseling Center and creates an easier avenue for students to see a counselor. More importantly, though, the model saves time, allowing counselors the opportunity to address issues more quickly to prevent an escalation.

Wise called this an “upstream” approach to meeting mental health challenges.

“This is an opportunity to catch people before they have a lot of different barriers stack up that puts them in a crisis mode,” he said. “Students now have someone with mental health expertise in their colleges who can be a part of students’ daily lives, people whom they can turn to for a quick one-on-one or a conversation that may not be a true counseling appointment or a series of counseling sessions, but rather a consultation to access a student’s needs.

“This is an upstream way to approach university counseling demands. It’s a way to help with some of the challenges a student may be facing in a way that helps the student immediately and doesn’t allow multiple problems to stack up and become a crisis.”

Virginia Tech officials aren’t stopping with adding counselors to the individual colleges. The task force report revealed that the resident advisors who live in Virginia Tech’s residence halls often referred an average of between three and four students each night to Cook Counseling Center the next day. That number swelled to an average of 10 on weekends.

To meet that need, Student Affairs announced that five counselors will be hired to live in various residence halls on campus starting for the 2022-23 academic year. The news was a part of an innovative, sweeping plan announced Aug. 3 that changes the residential life model at Virginia Tech.

This new model will promote student well-being, student success, and inclusion.

“We get a lot of our evening and weekend calls from on-campus students who are struggling, so we’re moving toward a model that provides the needed resource of a professional counselor as soon as possible to our residential students,” Wise said. “Students are going to know that there’s a counselor available to them at almost any time for a conversation.

“The new model will emphasize well-being, inclusion, and the total experience of Virginia Tech in co-horts of approximately 2,000 students mentored by five professional staff members, one of which will be an embedded counselor. This will provide an opportunity for all students in a peer group to meet and know a counselor as well as other professionals they can turn to as a resource. It is our hope that we can help students early and often as needed to prevent crisis for developing.”

In addition, Virginia Tech officials increased staffing by adding third-year residents in psychiatry from Lewis-Gale. Already licensed physicians, six residents worked at Cook Counseling Center this past year, and eight are working this year.

The additional staffing and the changing of the service model hopefully will allow Virginia Tech to meet the challenges ahead. Flynn said that half of all lifetime cases of mental health concerns start by age 14 and that 75 percent will be diagnosed before the age of 24.

“The time when it all comes forward is when we’re working with them,” Flynn said. “Not everybody goes to college, but we see it while they’re in college, and we have the resources to deal with it. It’s a great thing that people are coming forward, and we’re trying to find ways to help them to cope.”

That type of commitment continues to propel Virginia Tech to the forefront of mental wellness. This past September, The Princeton Review ranked the university No. 1 nationally for best counseling services out of 386 colleges.

But the university isn’t resting on its laurels. The administration has made a pledge to continue leading the way, finding innovative solutions to help its students daily. Part of that process means bringing in top talent—and Virginia Tech’s commitment to mental health is attracting the best.

“I applied to several other places and Virginia Tech was at the top of my list just because of the emphasis that they place on student wellness and the amount of resources that are available to students,” Ryan said. “That’s ultimately what enticed me to stay as well.

“I think we’re always looking for ways that we can improve and ways we can serve students. It’s a growing need. The past couple of years, students are utilizing college counseling across the board more, and we’re looking for ways to meet that demand.”

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