It was not long into his college career that Jackie Ayers discovered his calling was to help relieve others’ suffering. Having grown up in rural Missouri, Ayers recognized early on that understanding mental health wasn’t enough. He needed to know how mental health and physical health interacted and affected one another. His studies brought him to the University of Florida where, as a PhD candidate in psychology, he pursued a joint degree program that also enabled him to complete a bachelor of science in medicine as a physician assistant.
Having a foot in both the physical and mental health spheres has carried on throughout Ayers’ career at UF, where he serves as director of Employee Health Services. In his current role, Ayers oversees both the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) as well as UF’s Occupational Health and Workers’ Comp Services.
We sat down with Dr. Ayers to learn more about his distinguished career at UF as well as to hear his perspectives on how employees can navigate and support each other through challenging times.
Tell us a bit more about your path to becoming a psychologist and physician’s assistant.
As an undergraduate in college, I went with a volunteer team to work at a hospital with kids with emotional development disabilities. The kids were extremely nice and loving, and they got me hooked on wanting to help folks, specifically with mental health issues. So I ended up majoring in psychology and continued the path all the way up to a PhD in counseling psychology. I actually did a joint degree program where I got a PhD in counseling psychology and a bachelor of science in medicine as a physician assistant at the University of Florida.
What prompted your decision to pursue the joint program?
At the time, my focus was behavioral medicine and health psychology, but there really was not a program available anywhere in the country to do that. So I submitted to the dean of the College of Medicine and the dean of the Graduate School a specific proposal designed to create a new kind of provider that would be able to provide both medical services as well as psychological services, specifically in rural communities. That was my original intent.
How has that unique approach carried through your career?
When I finished both of my programs, I ended up getting recruited and hired as a faculty member in what was then the College of Medicine’s Physician Assistant (PA) program, where I served as the clinical coordinator of the senior year of our students. But I also served as the counselor to the PA students as well as teaching the behavioral science components of the curriculum and the physical diagnosis components of the program. Then I took a part-time position working as both a PA and a psychologist with the Department of Community Health and Family Medicine for a while. So I got to work both as a PA and a psychologist for a bit in that area, actually working in some rural areas on the weekends.
Then I had an opportunity to do some work with the Student Health Care Center. One of my practicums had been there and I really enjoyed working with students, so I decided to move my clinical activities with the PA program to working over at the Student Health Care Center. When a position opened up there, I moved over as a psychologist and somewhat of a PA, focusing primarily on people with eating disorders. Since I had both the PA degree and the psychology degree, it was the perfect combination for working with that particular population.
In 1990, I was elected, for lack of a better term, as the interim director and eventually became director of Student Mental Health Services.
How did you make the switch to the Employee Assistance Program?
The associate provost at the time appointed me as the chair of the Status of University Women Committee. The committee and I decided to do a survey of women faculty to see what their needs were. As the result of that, the number one need that came out was they wanted the return of the Employee Assistance Program. Therefore, we wrote a proposal and provided it to the provost at the time, Dr. Betty Capaldi, and within a few weeks, she had set up an account so it would be funded every year and we set it up in 1999 as part of the Student Health Care Center. Therefore, Student Mental Health Services began offering its services to both faculty and staff as well as students. We provided it in that combined format up until 2010, and then the Student Mental Health Services and the Counseling Center combined into the Counseling and Wellness Center. I was appointed to take on a new role as Director of Employee Health Service involving the oversight of the health services offered to faculty and staff through the Student Health Care Center, which included the Employee Assistance Program, Occupational Medicine and Workers Compensation, and later SHCC’s Human Resource Office and Credentials Program.
In addition to directing the EAP, you wear other hats as well. Tell us about the other aspects of your role at UF.
I’m also the administrative director of our Occupational Health and Workers’ Comp services as well as the administrative director for Student Health’s HR operations—our 200 employees—and our credentials division. I also manage the Shands Student Health Care Center clinic that provides services for all of the Health Science Center students. The Occupational Health clinic serves all University of Florida employees, including pre-placement physicals, the medical monitoring program, and/or workers’ comp. It’s a massive operation that includes needlestick and biohazard issues that can come up 24/7. Another key role for me has been my service and involvement on multiple university wide committees in order to participate in the development of universities policies and procedures that may enhance the emotional health and wellness of our faculty, staff and students.
How has the Employee Assistance Program evolved since it began more than 25 years ago?
In addition to adding clinical providers, we have been able to add a part-time psychiatric consultation service, so we now have the ability to have psychiatric assessments done by our staff. We have been able to implement a 24/7 after-hour call service that’s not just an answering service. It’s a service that you literally can call in and talk to a professional mental health counselor anytime after hours and on weekends and holidays. We have found ourselves increasingly involved in the behavioral consultation team, which is the university’s threat assessment team.
We have also found ourselves involved in increased outreach activities at the department and college level. A lot of outreach activities are conducted from a group standpoint, dealing with folks who are struggling with the death of a coworker or a suicide. Sometimes when there are departmental conflicts going on that need either a stress management or anger management kind of program, we’ll go over and do interventions with folks.
What do you want employees to know about the EAP?
Our focus is on helping individual employees to address any kind of emotional concerns or issues they may have—whether it’s from a personal standpoint or from their workplace performance standpoint. Our focus really is on helping them. It’s their EAP. We operate from the standpoint that the EAP belongs to the faculty and staff and we are there to help and serve them.
How often can an employee visit the EAP?
We set it at six sessions, but we also help facilitate people getting connected with community providers. We want to make sure that they know that if they want to come in and consult with us, we can help them get connected. We work with couples too. That’s been an interesting phenomenon recently—more and more couples are coming in for counseling as well as other family members from time to time. As long as one of them is getting a paycheck from the University of Florida, we’ll see them as well.
We provide this service for all 67 counties in terms of consultation for community referral. An employee can contact us by phone and we will work with them to identify a local resource. We don’t pay for it, but if they are an IFAS employee, IFAS has a program that if they mandate them to counseling and they go through them, they’ll pay for up to three sessions for them to go to before it goes to their insurance.
In light of everything that’s happening on campus now, is there guidance you would give people who might be feeling anxious?
I know that tension and stress levels are high. In the 1990s, during my first year as director, it was a stressful time with the student murders that happened on campus. The thing that helped us through that was that the best in people came out to be nurturing and supportive of each other. I would say in every crisis we have had — whether its 9/11, the downfall of the economy or any other major incidents we have had to go through— people are supportive of each other and trying to care for others and not necessarily being totally focused on self. It’s optimistic in a way. It is amazing how certain tragedies and conflicts have a tendency to bring out the best in most people.
What’s the best thing to do if someone witnesses a fellow employee or a student in distress? How can someone be most supportive to that person?
The first thing I would say is to be willing to listen to hear what their concerns and issues are and then be willing to take the initiative to encourage them to reach out for assistance—either at the EAP or, for students, at the Counseling and Wellness Center. Or go through UMatter, We Care. But also they should be aware that by listening and offering help that they don’t have to take on the responsibility of fixing them. There’s no need for anyone to feel like they have to do that. But it helps to be a listening ear and to know what the resources are that they can strongly suggest.
If, for some reason, that person is resistant, they can call us or the Counseling and Wellness Center to consult about how to help someone. Or they can go to either the EAP website or the Counseling and Wellness website for specific resource instructions.
My best advice, for folks to try to do, is if they see people hurting is to be as supportive as they can and to know that nobody has to suffer alone with any of this. There’s no shame in reaching out for assistance. That’s what we’re here for. It could just be a moment of, “I’ve had it and I just want to talk to somebody about it,” knowing they can do it in a confidential setting without dealing with any repercussions whatsoever. Give as a call and set up an appointment with YOUR UFEAP. We are here to Help.