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Staff Snapshot: Elizabeth Mondragon, mental health champion and wedding singer

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“Mental health care is as critical as any physical health care access and I believe it should be a basic need,” says Elizabeth Mondragon, Psy.D. In her role as director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and interim executive director of the Division of Health, Well-being and Safety, Mental Health Initiatives at UC Riverside, she has first-hand insight into the critical role that mental health services provide in keeping students safe and allowing them to fulfill their academic potential.

Elizabeth did not plan to focus her career in student mental health in higher education. Her predoctoral internship assignment brought her to UC Riverside, where she was fascinated to discover that campus mental health staff uniquely support people at many stages of life in navigating diverse challenges. Every day, she could see her impact and possibilities to do more for a community she felt deeply connected to.

“Our clients represent a cross-section of the larger community,” she says. “We support all issues: struggles around identity, relationships and personal goals; hallucinations and other physical symptoms that may require medication management or higher-level care; and acute mental health crises, such as suicidal tendencies.”

Part of Elizabeth and her colleagues’ success draws from deep partnerships they have formed with UC Riverside Police and Campus Safety. The UC Riverside Police Department provides logistical support, like conducting facility safety evaluations, but they also play a key role in personally and compassionately supporting students who are experiencing mental health challenges. Campus safety responders often provide student transportation in situations when an ambulance is not appropriate, such as transitioning someone to a higher level of care or bringing a sexual assault victim to a medical evaluation. “Safely transporting these students without involving armed officers is invaluable to the well-being of our community,” Elizabeth says.

The two departments also partner to provide training and education throughout the campus community — work that includes organizing and serving on behavioral intervention and threat-assessment teams. “We have been working diligently and collaboratively on developing our Mental Health Tiered Response model, which includes co-response between our teams,” Elizabeth says. “It is essential that we can meet students where they are and connect them with the type of professional who can best support their mental health needs.”

These well-coordinated efforts embody the aims of UC’s Community Safety Plan. Managed by the Office of Systemwide Community Safety, the plan seeks to implement practices that improve consistency, transparency and accountability and demonstrate a community-oriented approach to safety and security throughout the UC system. 

In addition to ensuring that UC Riverside students have the support they need, Elizabeth is a strong leader and advocate for the importance of mental health care within the higher ed community. “Mental health services not only support success but literally save lives so I could not imagine them to be other than a critical service,” Elizabeth says. “I am happy that the UC system has embraced supporting mental health across the spectrum from prevention and promotion to treatment and access to ongoing care.”

“People often misunderstand what therapy entails. They tend to believe that therapists just give advice and that anyone can listen and talk to people. This perspective overlooks the theoretical underpinnings and values of validated therapeutic interventions and treatment planning, as well as the benefits of seeking professional support.” 

She also adds, “I wish that more people understood the dedication of the clinicians who work on our campuses to support the campus community. This work takes an emotional toll on them.”

In such cases, colleagues are often among the first to notice the symptoms of stress and burnout. According to Elizabeth, if you believe a colleague, student or someone else in your life is in distress for any reason, it is important to acknowledge them and try to help. “The simplest form of intervention is to reach out to them yourself, or to encourage someone close to them to reach out. Let them know that you’re available to talk and provide information and encouragement for them to connect with a mental health professional. Knowing that you see them and that help is available can mean the world to someone who is hurting and needs support.” 

Meet Elizabeth 

Name: Elizabeth Mondragon, Psy.D.

Title: Director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS); Interim Executive Director of Health, Well-Being and Safety Mental Health Initiatives

Department/Unit: CAPS, Division of Health, Well-Being and Safety

Location: UC Riverside

When did you start working for UC? I became a permanent staff member in 2006, but was also a predoctoral intern in 2004.

In five words or less, what do you do for UC? Licensed mental health clinician and leader 

Why do you love working for UC? I love the student community. I identify with so many students, especially first-generation college students, first-generation Americans, and those from underrepresented backgrounds with many intersecting identities. UC Riverside students are amazingly driven and resilient, with many fascinating and rich identities. I feel privileged to work with them.

What’s something people don’t know about you? I love to sing. I used to sing in school and have sung at a few weddings, so, technically, I am a wedding singer!

Who is your dream dinner guest and why? This is a difficult question for me to answer, as there are so many influential and inspiring people who I would love to meet. The person who really comes to mind though is a dear friend who was taken from the earth too soon by cancer, Frances Munguia. My beautiful, lost friend was an extraordinary therapist, mom, wife and all-around wonderful person.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received? To balance the demands of my work and personal life, which has always been a challenge. My job necessitates a lot of time and dedication, and it can be extremely difficult to reconcile and prioritize my personal needs. Over time though, I have learned that to do my job well, I have to attend to my own well-being.

Editor’s note: To learn more about the Community Safety Plan, visit the Office of Systemwide Community Safety website, download the full plan (PDF) and read President Drake’s Sept. 19, 2023 update.

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