By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – The University of Nebraska at Kearney is taking a team-based approach to mental health care.
Staff from UNK Student Health and Counseling are partnering with a University of Nebraska Medical Center faculty member to introduce an integrated care program that improves access to these services on campus.
Supported by a three-year, $492,000 grant awarded by the Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska (BHECN), these professionals will implement a collaborative care model that provides efficient and effective treatment for depression, anxiety, trauma and other mental health conditions commonly encountered in a primary care environment.
“The collaborative care approach is gaining traction in primary care settings throughout the United States, but very few people are doing this at the university level,” said Wendy Schardt, director of UNK Student Health and Counseling. “We have the opportunity to be a trailblazer by using this model in a student health clinic.”
Developed at the University of Washington, collaborative care addresses both mental and physical health by utilizing a systematic approach with a team of providers to address mental health conditions for a population of patients. Integrating and leveraging psychiatric services in the primary care setting leads to improved access to care and ensures people in need don’t fall through the cracks.
“We’re going to meet people where they access care instead of expecting them to go to a separate location for mental health services,” said Maggie Emerson, an advanced practice psychiatric nurse practitioner and assistant professor at the UNMC College of Nursing in Omaha.
Students who visit the UNK campus health clinic already complete a survey that’s used to screen for anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. Based on those results, they may be referred to a mental health counselor.
This counselor will meet one-on-one with the student either in person or via telehealth while also serving as a member of the collaborative care team, which includes Emerson, Schardt and Anne Lano, a family nurse practitioner and nursing director for UNK Student Health. These professionals will work together to develop a measurement-guided care plan that meets the patient’s specific needs and goals.
“In my mind, this is how medicine should be practiced,” Emerson said. “We should all be communicating and we should all have the patient’s goals as the motivating factor for how we address and manage treatment.”
The collaborative care team tracks each patient’s progress, allowing them to focus more attention on someone who’s struggling, and shares relapse-prevention strategies toward the end of the treatment program. This model is designed to be short-term, with students completing six to 10 sessions, but patients could be referred to longer-term counseling services when necessary.
“We are strategically placing mental health supports throughout campus life, and this is one more tool to broaden access for students,” said Schardt, a licensed mental health practitioner. “We want to offer a variety of different entry points to get them the assistance they need.”
The integrated care program should be available to students this fall.
Emerson and Schardt also plan to use the UNK clinic as a training site for current and future health care professionals interested in implementing a collaborative care model. The grant money comes from more than $25 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding allocated to BHECN last year by the Nebraska Legislature to address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the shortage of behavioral health professionals in the state.
“This clinic can serve as a hub for people to see how integrated care works and further incentivize them to pursue providing this type of care,” Emerson said. “You need a developed workforce that really understands how to deliver integrated services, and that’s something we can provide to meet the needs of Nebraska residents.”
“I think this is a great starting point,” Schardt added. “By proving this works at the university level, we could ultimately improve access to mental health care across the state. Nebraska can be a place where we’re known for this pipeline of trained professionals.”