Meet the Latest Addition to UCI’s Student Wellness Team: Ashlee Whitehead

by Nick Ortiz

A woman walks into a counseling center. She has had a rough past. She has come to talk to her counselor to receive counseling for her addiction, something she’s been battling for a while. The woman sees that the counselor is not the one to which she is regularly assigned; Ashlee Whitehead is a temporary replacement for the time being. After her third consultation, the woman requests for her stand-in counselor to become permanent. When asked why the change, the woman replies, “I trust you.”

A new addition to UCI’s Student Wellness and Health Center; Whitehead, the alcohol and other drugs programs manager, makes herself right at home as a counselor at UCI.

During her time as an undergraduate at UCI, Whitehead was involved on campus. She was an  RA, a campus representative, on the committee for Government of Undergraduate Student Housing (GUSH), and took ASUCI leadership courses. In 2011, Whitehead graduated UCI with a B.A. in psychology and social behavior.

“I’ve always known from a young age that I have wanted to help people,” said Whitehead. “I didn’t know what that would look like, until I met people who would tell me how easy it was to talk to me. I figured: ‘What’s a listening job? Counseling.’”

After attending UCI, Whitehead attended the University of Oklahoma and received a Master of Human Relations, MHR, in clinical mental health counseling.

Afterward, she landed a teaching job with the nonprofit organization Teach for America. While there, Whitehead taught environmental science, biology, anatomy and physiology in Tulsa, Oklahoma as a CORE member. Receiving many opportunities, financial and position-wise, Whitehead was promoted to a recruiter position.

Whitehead was a recruiter in Tulsa Oklahoma from 2015 to 2017 and was eventually laid off.

“Education and mental health are not priorities of Oklahoma at this time,” said Whitehead. “So there’s a lot of money being taken away, at this time, from those sectors.”

After being laid off, Whitehead found a passion for being a substance abuse counselor for ten months. She found an opening for the alcohol and other drugs programs manager.

Having found a position that involves confidentiality, her ability to share information about work is limited. She, however, has found ways to relieve that tension in coping with the bigger, more serious topics that happen in her office.

“If I am driving by myself, I make it a rule to think, pine over, get angry in the car,” she says. “Once I close that door as I get out of the car those problems stay there. I compartmentalize where I can make those worries matter. Set boundaries for myself. Take-aways are okay to share, but heavy, nitty-gritty things need to stay at work.”

When asked about common occurrences that happen on college campuses, Whitehead explains how recreational use of drugs and alcohol can sometimes become something more dangerous.

“The pervasive stress of being a college student leads students to experiment with drugs and eventually habitually use them [and] become dependent,” said Whitehead. “Back in the day, it used to be more likely that college students would use and abuse alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Now we’re seeing, with the legalization of marijuana, alcohol and marijuana are up there [in use and abuse of the drug].”

Whitehead says that since the decriminalization of marijuana in California earlier this year, users do not perceive the drug to be as harmful as it can be.  

“There’s not been this much of a spike in marijuana use since the 1980s,” said Whitehead.

When Whitehead deals with students, she tries to create an environment of authenticity. Having an air of trust and honesty allows Whitehead and the patient to be themselves while discussing whether there is a problem or not.

“I prioritize that I do not judge anyone,” said Whitehead. “If you are confident enough to come to me about anything, an issue, the last thing I want to do is shame you for opening your mouth about it.”  

Once Whitehead has heard the issue at hand, she assesses what programs and resources are needed to help, even if that means she is the resource they need.  Not only is recovery expensive financially, Whitehead points out, abusers lose their friends, family members, places to live as well as financial stability on their road to recovery.

The approach to recovery is assessed by how individuals believe their addiction is a problem.

“Sometimes you have to wait for someone to be sick and tired of being sick and tired for them to realize there is an issue, unfortunately,” said Whitehead.

Whitehead’s office isn’t the only way to get help; the Student Wellness and Health Promotion Center has many resources to obtain help on campus.

 Overall, Whitehead is in love with being back on campus in a position that allows her to help students on campus to be the safest and best they can be.