UK Psychology Department Clinic Reaches Out to People to Treat Specific Conditions and Improve Lives

By Richard LeComte

LEXINGTON, Ky, -- Three University of Kentucky College of Arts & Sciences professors are combining their research with outreach to the community in a quest to understand mental health and bring their findings to bear on treatment. 

Founded in the fall of 2019, the Clinic for Emotional Health, part of UK’s Department of Psychology, unites faculty members and graduate students to execute three goals: 1) to conduct research on the nature of emotional disorders and their treatment; 2) to provide the highest quality care to community members who participate in the studies; and 3) to train the next generation of therapists to provide science-backed care.  

The faculty members leading the effort, based in Lexington, are: 

  • Shannon Sauer-Zavala, assistant professor of psychology and director of clinical services. 
  • Tom Adams, assistant professor of psychology and director of research for the clinic. 
  • Christal Badour, associate professor of psychology and director of training. 
  • Matt Southward, post-doctoral scholar, Department of Psychology. 

“We’re conducting cutting-edge research on the science of emotional disorders broadly defined,” Sauer-Zavala said. “And we want to offer really high-quality training in the provision of evidence-based practice. When people seek services for mental health difficulties, they have only a 30% chance of getting science-backed care. So, we wanted to offer this training opportunity for our students so that they’ll be able to provide the very best care to people in Kentucky.” 

So far, the clinic has served about 90 clients. Badour estimates that doctoral students receiving  training in the clinic have offered over 450 hours of free assessment and therapy through in-person and telehealth facilities.  

Currently, the clinic is offering treatment for conditions that correspond to the expertise of the three main faculty members: obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and borderline personality disorder. 

"Tom is an expert in exposure and response prevention for OCD and prolonged exposure for post-traumatic stress disorder,” Sauer-Zavala said. “Christal is an expert in cognitive processing therapy for PTSD. They trained at the best places in the United States and probably in the world for these treatments.” 

To start the clinic, the professors advertised for people who experienced trauma, OCD-like symptoms or other kinds of problems – the kind of emotional issues that might interfere or even disrupt people’s ability to get through the day.  

“We identify people in the community who say, ‘I've had this experience,’ or ‘I have this problem,’ and we let them know that we’re offering free therapy for their difficulties,” Badour said. “We've offered targeted treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder following sexual victimization so that's a much more specific area. We also offered specific treatment for OCD and then specific treatments for borderline personality disorder, as well." 

For PTSD, Badour is exploring the addition of mindfulness training to a well-established treatment – Cognitive Processing Therapy.  

“For example, we’re including an additional six sessions of a treatment called self-compassion therapy, which is a mindfulness-based intervention,” Badour said. “It helps them to approach their experiences nonjudgmentally and to increase the compassion that they have for themselves. It’s shown some benefit for reducing shame associated with trauma.” 

Meanwhile, Adams and company are using tested methods to improve treatment for OCD, including non-invasive brain stimulation.  

“It's a traditional treatment that is very well established -- we've had it for two generations, since the 1960s, and we've known it has worked quite well since the ’70s,” Adams said. “We're using something called transcranial direct current stimulation, where you put electrodes on the head and pass a week electrical current between them. We’re targeting brain regions that we think can enhance brain plasticity and perhaps even nudge the brain in ways that will help with OCD.” 

And just as important as the services the clinic is providing to the people of Lexington and Kentucky in general is the training the group is offering to students. Last spring, the clinic worked with about a dozen grad students, and the faculty members want to bring in undergrads as well. The idea is to give these future clinicians the kind of training in evidence-based therapy that will be of benefit to the mental health of the citizens of the Commonwealth. 

"We have students in our labs who are involved, both in the research and the clinical practice, but we really wanted to open up this opportunity to all the doctoral students in our psychology program, so they can get the clinical training experience,” Badour said. “We have a practicum training site where students come, and then even if they don't have experience and background in these areas that we treat, they can gain the necessary experience. They come in and we teach them how to do these therapies, and we provide them with intensive supervision.” 

As a result of their labors, people in Kentucky are getting evidence-based treatment for conditions that may hamper them in enjoying meaningful and fulfilling lives. 

“Because our services are provided all in the context of clinical trials, the care is actually free,” Sauer-Zavala said. “I think that that's a really important piece of the program -- that we're able to provide care at no cost, and it's the highest quality care available.”