Karen Lucero, the associate clinical director of counseling services at the University of New Mexico’s Student Health and Counseling, works tirelessly to see her own patients while managing clients and counseling personnel at UNM. As the self-described “boots on the ground” at SHAC, Lucero is proud to work as a counselor and help others.

Lucero’s future was not always in counseling. She was initially gearing up to enter the UNM School of Law herself after obtaining her bachelor’s degree in philosophy and economics from UNM before her own personal experiences with grief counseling persuaded her to change career paths.

“I had a family member pass away, and it was the first time I ever needed any type of support services, so I was introduced to grief counseling and I fell in love with it, and it completely changed the course of my career track,” Lucero said.

Lucero first came to SHAC as a counseling provider for the UNM School of Law three years ago, before applying for the position of associate director last year.

Stephanie McIver, director of counseling services at SHAC, has known about Lucero’s expertise since interviewing her for the position of counselor at the law school.

“It was very clear from the moment we interviewed her that she was a terrific asset, a resource, a very skilled individual,” McIver said. “All the expertise that she brought from her previous training and her previous placement were, I think, exactly what UNM needed to help our students.”

McIver now works very closely with Lucero, and has come to know her as highly skilled in managing the daily internal affairs of SHAC.

“She is just a terrific interface to help navigate (provider and student needs) and help students to access our services, and she’s just a terrific crisis intervention person,” McIver said. “So when we get calls or visits from students who are in crisis, she’s just tremendously skilled at helping to manage that.”

Lucero takes particular interest in acceptance and commitment therapy, which combines behavior change and mindfulness to increase psychological flexibility. Lucero is also an advocate for cultural competence, in which the provider acknowledges and incorporates a client’s social and cultural background in their approaches to treatment.

McIver noted Lucero’s skill in integrating cultural awareness into her methods of care, as well as her “tremendous sensitivity” to the needs of students of color and queer students.

Lucero is quite proud of SHAC’s overall cultural competency and willingness to adjust their clinical approaches to the needs and backgrounds of the students they see. However, she wishes that more undergraduates would seek care, and she feels that having community members to support students and overcome the hump of counseling stigma is a pivotal part of that.

“The more a community encourages someone to get help, the more likely (getting help) is to occur, and typically in undergrad, the community isn’t as cohesive,” Lucero said. “I would really like to see communities of undergrads become more cohesive so that they can take those types of encouragement from their support people, people they really trust.” 

Lucero is grateful for what she has seen as an overall trend in younger generations toward combating mental health stigma, seeking out support services and taking steps toward improving mental health on a personal level. She said that many younger students have already had counseling and that “the stigma is changing.”

With this greater demand for therapy, Lucero sometimes struggles with increased demand for mental health services around certain “peak periods,” during which SHAC struggles to provide services to the student population with their limited number of professionals on deck.

“I think the most challenging part is when … the demand just bottlenecks and having to see people really interested in services because stressors have increased, and just not having enough people to evenly spread the services across those who want it,” Lucero said.

Despite this, Lucero feels that the University’s online therapy interface, Therapy Assistance Online, is tremendously helpful in alleviating some of the demand and helping students self-start their journey to mental wellness.

Lucero gives kudos to her fellow SHAC counselors who have handled increased intake in patients and more severe symptom presentation in many patients during the pandemic with grace.

“The counselors have been doing so much good work under so much demand and pressure, so I’d have to say it’s really great to have colleagues that have the grit that this year required,” Lucero said.

Zara Roy is the news editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @zarazzledazzle