Jena Casas' evolving research focuses on filling the need for behavioral health services in Nevada

Doctoral student in clinical psychology receives the Sam Lieberman Regents' Award for Student Scholarship

Portrait of Jena Casas

Jena Casas' evolving research focuses on filling the need for behavioral health services in Nevada

Doctoral student in clinical psychology receives the Sam Lieberman Regents' Award for Student Scholarship

Portrait of Jena Casas

Jena Casas, a fourth-year doctoral student in the University’s clinical psychology program, has received the Sam Lieberman Regents' Award for Student Scholarship for her academic achievements, leadership ability, and service contributions throughout the state. Formerly known as the Regents' Scholar Award, the award was renamed for Regent Sam Lieberman who passed away in 2020, in commemoration of his service and dedication to public higher education in Nevada. 

Casas holds a master’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s degree in clinical psychology. She served as the Associate Director of the THRIVE Center, a University behavioral health clinic, for the treatment of primary and secondary victims of interpersonal violence from Fall 2019 to Spring 2020 and is currently completing her internship year at the Carson City Rural Clinic, an APA accredited internship site at a clinic within the division of public and behavioral health that is dedicated to providing services to underserved and disadvantaged populations throughout the state. Casas is primarily interested in researching questions related to the intersections of culture, psychology, and law, and to date, she is the author of 16 peer-reviewed publications, 5 book chapters, and 15 conference presentations in addition to 7 articles under review and 2 in progress. Below, Casas answers a few questions about her path to clinical psychology, her passion for the research she does and how it has evolved over the course of her education.

What first drew you to the field of clinical psychology?

When I started college, I knew that I wanted to have a career helping others. Initially, I didn’t know what that would look like or how I was going to do it. I began my education in Emergency Medicine, but I quickly realized that it wasn’t for me. I was drawn to understanding the trauma that first responders were responding to rather than becoming a first responder myself. I took a psychology course sometime after making the decision to leave emergency medicine. I realized that this class answered as many questions as I had about human cognition, emotions, and behavior as it created new questions. My interests piqued when learning about the changes that a person could experience after a traumatic life experience and I have been fortunate to be able to continue learning about trauma in a variety of different populations ever since.

You served as Associate Director of the THRIVE Center, a University behavioral health clinic for the treatment of primary and secondary victims of interpersonal violence. You are now interning at Carson City Rural Clinic, an APA accredited internship site at a clinic within the division of public and behavioral health that is dedicated to providing services to underserved and disadvantaged populations throughout the state. How have your experiences working with these populations shaped your education?

This realization, that our state has significant need for behavioral health services but has few resources, has shaped my clinical training and research trajectory. I spend a lot of time thinking about barriers to access to care in Nevada.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned through my experiences is that our state has tremendous need. Whether it is for affordable services, linguistically sensitive services, culturally competent services, trauma-focused services, we need it all. Nevada ranks very low in the nation for behavioral health. We have high prevalence rates of behavioral health issues, but a small number of providers, and we have 17 counties, most of which are rural, which presents its own unique challenges for access to care. This realization, that our state has significant need for behavioral health services but has few resources, has shaped my clinical training and research trajectory. I spend a lot of time thinking about barriers to access to care in Nevada.

During my time as the Associate Director of the THRIVE Center, I provided services for community members that had experienced violence. I noticed that even if grant funding could help to ensure services were free, there were other barriers that could impact a person’s ability to engage with treatment, such as limited English language proficiency, childcare needs, an inflexible work schedule, or a lack of transportation. During internship at the Carson City Rural Clinic, I provided services via telehealth to people across the entire state. I noticed that telehealth is not a perfect solution to barriers to care in that there are inequalities in access to technology, good internet connection, and access to an appropriate home environment (i.e., private, confidential, free of distractions) that can impact treatment. Thus, although securing grant funding for free services and offering telehealth services are excellent and necessary first steps, there remain significant barriers to accessibility that require creative problem-solving in this state.

How has your research evolved over the course of your two master’s degrees and as you near the completion of your doctorate in Clinical Psychology?

My research centers around issues that intersect culture, psychology, and law. Although the topics have shifted back and forth between criminal justice-oriented topics and more clinical psychological topics, trauma tends to be the common thread that runs throughout my research.

During my time in the Criminal Justice program, I was learning how to be a researcher. I began utilizing data analysis software and learned how to ask sound research questions and design studies with good methodology. I began presenting research for conferences and I worked closely with faculty to prepare journal articles for publication including research on the characteristics of police use of force incidents and the effectiveness of the AMBER Alert system in recovering missing children.

I was able to refine my research skills in the Clinical Psychology program under the mentorship of Dr. Lorraine Benuto and I began to develop a clearer research trajectory. In the beginning, I was focused more narrowly on interpersonal violence between family or romantic partners (i.e., domestic violence or intimate partner violence). I published peer reviewed journal articles, presented at conferences, and was involved in grant writing to develop a specialized program to prevent child abuse in families at risk for abuse. Over time, I became more broadly interested in trauma exposure, I moved to researching interventions to treat the common sequalae of trauma exposure, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For my dissertation, I examined the feasibility and acceptability of a brief telehealth delivered written intervention for the treatment of PTSD.

Finally, over the last year, there has been a shift in my interests to examine occupational trauma exposure in first responders. I am largely interested in law enforcement populations and I recently published two peer reviewed journal articles discussing trauma narratives written anonymously by first responders and the impact of traumatic stress on law enforcement families.  

What’s next for you? What do you hope to be doing after you receive your doctorate?

I am very excited for the next few years. I have a number of projects that I can’t wait to get off the ground, including opening a private practice, but my immediate focus for the next year is to complete my post-doctoral year to meet the requirements for licensure in Nevada.

What impact do you hope to have in the field of Clinical Psychology?

I am a native Nevadan and would be proud if I can make a difference right here in my backyard. I think I can do so by providing much needed trauma-focused services to those in need, connecting and collaborating with other community agencies to strengthen our behavioral health infrastructure, and participating in conversations that can shape our policies and legislation via membership with the Nevada Psychological Association.

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