BU Behavioral Medicine is kicking off the school year with a new director. Kara Cattani, a clinical psychologist who was formerly executive director of student development services at Brigham Young University, will oversee the department in a newly renovated space at Student Health Services (SHS). She follows Carrie Landa, who was promoted last year and is now the University’s inaugural executive director of Student Wellbeing.
At BYU, Cattani oversaw the school’s counseling and psychological services, academic and university support offices, and sexual assault survivor advocacy services.
“Kara’s warmth and empathy are apparent from the moment you meet her,” says Judy Platt, BU’s chief health officer and Student Health Services director. Cattani has dedicated her “clinical work and research to serving those who struggle with mental health concerns and has spent countless years in the field of collegiate mental health. Given the continued mental health challenges experienced here and across the country that have unfortunately worsened during the pandemic, we are very fortunate to have Kara leading our Behavioral Medicine department and working to continually improve our mental health services at Boston University.”
Asked why she likes working with college students, Cattani says she has a lot of empathy for how difficult and important this stage of life can be. “They’re faced with life transitions, it’s this time of exploring values and long-term goals, and finding relationships and community,” she says. “Research also shows that it’s a time in life when individuals are at risk for developing a number of different psychiatric disorders. And with that in mind, it’s kept me passionate about being involved in this work and with this population.”
Cattani is well aware of the growing demand for mental health services on college campuses. The most common problems students present with nationwide, she says, are anxiety disorders, depression, adjustment issues, and academic difficulties. According to the 2022 Healthy Minds Study, an annual national survey of college students led by Sarah K. Lipson, a BU School of Public Health assistant professor of health law, policy, and management, as well as researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University, the mental health of US college students has been on a consistent decline for all eight years of analyzing data, with an overall increase of 135 percent in depression and of 110 percent in anxiety from 2013 to 2021. The study found that the number of students who met the criteria for one or more mental health problems in 2021 had doubled since 2013.
Cattani’s own research focuses on evidenced-based interventions, specifically interpersonal and mindfulness-based cognitive-behavioral models, such as compassion-focused therapy, aimed at helping those struggling with shame and self-criticism, often from early experiences of abuse or neglect. “It is a biopsychosocial model,” she explains. “It takes what has been learned in models such as cognitive behavioral treatment, but then it’s saying the body is also important, so we need to understand biology and physiology and how that plays into mental health and emotions. It also borrows a lot from Eastern thinking.”
It was clear to her during the interview process, Cattani says, that she would be joining a team of highly capable and compassionate clinicians. Similar to counseling centers nationwide, BU’s Behavioral Medicine is working to recruit and retain staff, and she says she’s making that one of her top priorities. She also wants to enhance staff diversity, because she believes college counseling centers have the “critical opportunity to provide students with equitable access to care that is culturally competent, and that fosters hope and trust in mental health services.
“I want to make sure that we are this access point that continues to reduce stigma and helps our marginalized and underrepresented students have a positive experience,” she says.
One initiative that Cattani is exploring is developing a training program for graduate students, similar to the program she managed at BYU. She found that this type of program challenges and inspires staff to collaborate, helps create a sense of community, and last, has the potential to expand clinical resources, “because you have graduate students who are providing a lot of clinical services under your supervision,” she says. Doing so would help to address the nationwide shortage of mental health providers.
Cattani is also looking forward to working closely with Student Wellbeing. This new department within the Provost’s Office focuses on students’ holistic well-being across all dimensions—emotional, social, physical, and professional.
“BU, as an institution, seems invested in holistic wellness, and I’m borrowing this parable: the saying is that too often we focus on how to help rescue students who have fallen in the river or are caught in the current, and we forget to attend to the equally critical task of preventing students from falling in, in the first place,” she says. “That’s kind of my understanding of Dr. Landa’s new department and what they’ll be focusing on. I think that’s so exciting, and I’m here to support her and the campus-wide initiatives that promote general well-being, because, of course, that in turn facilitates positive mental health.”
Cattani earned an undergraduate degree at Brigham Young and a doctorate in clinical psychology at Florida State University, where her research focused on researching methods to evaluate psychotherapy outcomes and predict and prevent psychotherapy treatment failures.
Outside of work, Cattani loves spending time with her family, traveling, hiking in Zion National Park, and the outdoors. She’s excited to live close to the ocean again, something she missed in landlocked Utah.
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