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Friday, September 24, 2021

The Student Services Finance Committee will vote Monday on the University Health Services budget, which does not include the funds for additional mental health counselors to meet necessary projections. 

Inclusive accessibility, lack of counselors shape concerns for UHS final budget vote

For years, students have spoken out about the lack of mental health services on campus. As they stand in front of the Student Services Finance Committee, the absence of enough mental health counselors will be put into question Monday. 

An internal study reported University Health Services would have to hire between 19 and 33 mental health professionals over the next five years, according to the UHS budget request. However, they only requested two additional counselors for 2019-’20, falling short of the nearly four counselors they would need to hire each year to reach the projected long-term minimum. 

“Right off the bat, there’s a gap with what students want and what we’re seeing from UHS,” SSFC Chair Jeremy Swanson said. “The concern is that mental health services don’t meet the student need.”

UHS also reported a 135 percent staff turnover rate over the past five years, which has made it difficult for students of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community seeking mental health services to find counsellors they can relate to.

Along with UHS struggling to retain counselors, Associated Students of Madison Chair Billy Welsh also raised concerns about other ways campus mental health services are falling short of students’ needs. He cited long wait times for appointments with counselors — in some cases scheduling up to eight weeks out — as a major barrier to accessibility. 

“I guess in an ideal world, people would have their needs met right away, but I do know that eight weeks is too long for people to get the care that they need,” Welsh said. 

The solutions to these problems are additional staffing and space, which “aren’t reflected in this budget,” Welsh said.

According to Swanson, university administration directed UHS to keep their segregated fees — the mandatory payment included in tuition to cover services such as bus passes and access to campus facilities — around 1 percent, presumably to offset the cost of the new recreation center, also known as “The Nick.”

“Whether or not there was thought put into what that means for the other budgets that are affected by that, I don’t know, but there’s a consequence … to demanding that UHS only increase by 1 percent,” Swanson said. 

Welsh, who is not a member of SSFC and will not be voting on the budget, pointed out that this could be an opportunity to show university administration the importance of funding mental health.

“I think it would send a really powerful signal to the Chancellor that ... we’re voting ‘no’ because this very important part of the budget is just failing students,” Welsh said. 

While Chancellor Rebecca Blank may currently have a limited perspective on the future of mental health services, she’s open to expansion depending on SSFC’s recommendation, Swanson said. 

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If SSFC votes against the budget on Monday, both Welsh and Swanson emphasized this does not mean UHS will be underfunded for the next academic year. The budget would then go to the chancellor for a final decision. 

“I can’t think of a single issue that has more student support than mental health,” Swanson said. “And any issue that students would be more willing to pay for than expanding mental health services.”

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