10:42 AM

Mental Wellness Initiatives at UHD Supported by Nearly $300K SAMHSA Grant

Dr. Katrina Rufino Leading Charge to Bolster Campus Conversations on Mental Health, Suicide


By Mike Emery

The world is emerging from the shadow of COVID-19, but the pandemic has left a number of unforeseen aftereffects. Depression and anxiety are among the repercussions following a year of isolation and fear. Likewise, thoughts of suicide (or suicide ideation) also have been pervasive among many who experienced a sense of hopelessness during an unprecedented and unpredictable period. 

College students are among the most vulnerable populations when it comes to pandemic-related mental health issues, and the numbers speak for themselves. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death among Americans between the ages of 18 and 24. Additionally, youth and young adults are experiencing increased mental health challenges tied to the pandemic, while more than one in five college students have considered or at least thought about suicide. 

University of Houston-Downtown researcher and faculty member Dr. Katrina Rufino is working to improve campus mental health at her own institution with support from a recent grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). 

Rufino, Associate Professor of Psychology, was awarded a three-year, nearly $300,000 Garrett Lee Smith Campus Suicide Prevention Grant through SAMHSA. The grant will support a range of initiatives supporting students’ mental health at UHD. 

These include: 

  • The development of interventions and mental health training for University students, staff and faculty. 

  • Reducing the stigma associated with suicide and mental health. 

  • Developing campus screening mechanisms for mental health, substance use and sleep disorders. 

  • Increasing student knowledge of mental health and resources available. 

  • Providing additional evidence-based mental health services on campus. 

Additionally, the grant will assist in creating partnerships with Houston-area mental health professionals and organizations to increase services to UHD students and provide training for University staff in recognizing when a student may be experiencing mental health issues.  

Rufino will lead these efforts alongside colleague Dr. Danya Serrano, Assistant Professor of Psychology, and in collaboration with UHD’s Counseling Center. She also will enlist the support of student organizations such as Psi Chi, the Psychology Club and Active Minds to further reach the University’s student community. 

Ultimately, one of the principal goals of this SAMHSA grant is to increase communication on the very sensitive topics of suicide and mental health. Rufino hopes such discussions will reduce the stigma associated with these subjects. 

“I often hear from our students that they are challenged in discussing these issues with their families,” Rufino said. “One of the things that we’re working on is helping students talk to their families about mental health. They may want to seek services to support their mental health needs, but treatment or counseling is not accepted in their families. We’re hoping to bridge that gap.” 

As indicated, sleep will be among the issues addressed by Rufino and collaborators, as research shows a correlation between sleep problems and suicide; yet sleep, she said, is one of those factors that is taken for granted when it comes to mental health. In a recent study, she and UHD colleagues Drs. Stephanie Babb and Ruth Johnson compared students’ sleep habits before and during the pandemic. 

“We discovered that during COVID-19, our students suffered from increased sleep disturbance, anxiety, insomnia and depression and reported lower instances of mental wellbeing,” she said. 
Drs. Rufino and Serrano, as well as their community partners and student groups, certainly have a large task ahead of them. They recognize, however, the significance of ensuring the University Community has the tools they need to effectively address mental health challenges as students return to classrooms this fall. 

“We have big plans and big goals,” Rufino said. “Students have long been affected by various mental health issues, but COVID-19 has made things worse. If anything, the pandemic has empowered people to talk about mental health in new ways and to check in on each other. My hope is that work conducted through the support of this Garrett Lee Smith grant keeps the momentum going and furthers discussions on mental health.” 

About the University of Houston-Downtown

The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.

U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.