Opinion

More funding, support needed for campus mental health services

Many students attended the Student Services Finance Committee meeting to express their concern about the lack of funding for mental health services at UW. 

Image By: Kalli Anderson

On Monday, February 11, the Associated Students of Madison Student Services Finance Committee (SSFC) unanimously voted against the University Health Services’ (UHS) $18.9 million budget for the 2020 fiscal year. The budget and SSFC recommendations will be presented to Chancellor Rebecca Blank in March for a final decision. 

While this decision does not withhold any funding from UHS, it conveys student concerns to UHS and the University. The SSFC cannot support this budget in its current form and demands long-term investment into mental health services.

Mental health is one of the most prevalent issues facing students at UW–Madison and at universities across the country. It is the University’s responsibility to provide adequate health services, and ASM’s mission to advocate on behalf of the students we represent.

Students already know that mental health services at UHS are inadequate. 

In 2018, wait times for counseling sessions were as long as 36 days. With a cap on meetings - 10 counseling sessions per academic year and 20 per academic career - students are discouraged from seeking longer-term help. Alternatives to one-on-one counseling sessions, which may benefit students facing less acute symptoms, remain limited and unexplored.

The location of mental health services, almost exclusively in the Student Activity Center, inconveniences students living far from central campus. 

Additionally, appointments are not available after 5 p.m. or on weekends, creating further barriers for students to receive the services they need. The traditional work-day model of care is inaccessible to students balancing classes, work and extracurricular involvement.

UHS also faces a lack of diversity in providers, increasing the difficulty for students of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community to attain specialized mental health services. High staff turnover only further negatively impacts patient-provider relationships and the foundations of trust.

The first step towards addressing these issues was to vote against another status quo UHS budget. 

In addition to this repudiation, the SSFC will provide a detailed list of proposals to begin making tangible progress. These recommendations are partially outlined below and will be further drafted through discussions with campus partners. A UHS internal review estimated a need of between 19 and 33 mental health providers over the next five years to maintain the current level of services as enrollment and demand grow; this will require four to seven additional providers every year. 

However, the proposed UHS budget only requests two. In discussions with UHS, it became clear that they can reasonably hire seven additional providers in FY 2020 given physical space constraints. Financial support from campus has been stagnant at $1.2 million for years, decreasing in real value and percentage of the UHS budget over time. We call for a modest increase to $2 million in campus funding, effective fiscal year 2020, to offset the cost of additional providers. 

SSFC  calls on the Auxiliary Operations Analysis office and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori Reesor to remove the arbitrary one percent fiscal budget restraint on the UHS budget and grant UHS the necessary capacity to expand mental health services. The SSFC supports modest annual segregated fee increases to expand mental health resources.

Beyond this, UHS must initiate the process of expanding physical space by engaging in discussions with Facilities Planning & Management and all relevant parties. The demand for mental health resources is not going away, and neither should the conversation around expansion.Furthermore, the 135 percent staff turnover rate (over the past five years) has long been an impediment to expanding mental health services. 

This needs to be addressed by analyzing proposals to increase wages, introduce a graduated compensation plan, improve the workplace culture, and foster closer relations with UW-Madison graduate programs. A UHS internal review must be initiated to better understand the root cause of excessive turnover.

Students must be involved in all discussions regarding mental health services and UHS operations in the future.  Students should be included in discussions of programs that directly impact them, especially those involving mental health. The best place to get feedback on student mental health services is from students themselves. 

UHS must consult with the Healthcare Advisory Committee on a biweekly basis and take student concerns and priorities seriously. Additionally, UHS shall brief the SSFC on budget expectations during the fall semester.

ASM supports the VCSA’s decision to establish a Mental Health Task Force. It must include student input and should consider solutions to all constraints mentioned in this document, especially potential alternatives to one-on-one counseling and physical space expansion. We agree with the Chancellor that this task force must release a final proposal and action plan by the end of the 2019 fall semester.

The Student Services Finance Committee consistently demonstrates a commitment to fiscal responsibility. This year we decreased the allocable segregated fee by 11 percent, including a 16 percent decrease to ASM’s own internal budget. ASM also coordinated action to pay off remaining debt on the SAC building using reserve balances which will save students $136 in segregated fees over four years. 

The SSFC understands that our UHS proposals will increase the segregated fee for students, but does so with the intent of improving mental health services for all students. SSFC’s rejection of the UHS budget, and accompanying recommendations to Chancellor Blank, is just one part of an ongoing fight to expand mental health resources to UW - Madison students.

Jeremy Swanson (ssfc@asm.wisc.edu) is a senior majoring in finance and political science and is the chair of the ASM Student Services Finance Committee. What experiences have you had with mental health services at UHS? Do you agree with the SSFC’s decision? Send all comments and questions to opinion@dailycardinal.com. 

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