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Sunday, April 02, 2023

A suicide prevention hotline will be added to the backs of Wiscards following a motion from a student council campaign and new state legislation.

From ASM campaign to state legislation: Suicide prevention hotline to be added to Wiscards

For UW-Madison students experiencing a mental health crisis next year, the number to call for help could be as close as the back of their student ID.

A new bill passed in the state Legislature this month mandates all student ID cards for colleges and universities in Wisconsin to include phone numbers for suicide prevention hotlines. The bill has bipartisan support and only awaits Gov. Tony Evers’ signature. 

But the state legislation wasn’t the first UW-Madison heard of adding a crisis hotline to the back of Wiscards. Associated Students of Madison, the campus’ student government, already put the idea in motion thanks to a campaign started back in October. 

ASM Rep. Yogev Ben-Yitschak introduced the student council legislation at their Oct. 2 meeting after being inspired at a summer student government conference. Northwestern University students’ ID cards, which have multiple hotline numbers, made him realize adding similar numbers to Wiscards could work at UW-Madison. 

“It seemed like a campaign that [ASM] could really get behind in terms of what it was trying to do — I think ASM as a whole has been really trying to focus more on mental health this year,” Ben-Yitschak said. “This campaign fit very nicely in terms of making sure everybody knows where to reach out during a mental health crisis.”

A University Health Services study reported 15 percent of UW-Madison students had thoughts of suicide in 2018; it is the second-leading cause of death among college students.

The ASM legislation proposed adding a total of three numbers to the back of Wiscards: the UHS Mental Health Crisis Line, the UW Police Department phone number and the Rape Crisis Line. 

Around the same time ASM passed its legislation, the state’s bipartisan mental health task force recommended adding the suicide prevention hotline number to student IDs, Ben-Yitschak said. While he communicated with representatives about the progress of this suggestion, Ben-Yitschak also worked with UW-Madison “in case the state legislation [did] nothing else with it.”

He added that the biggest challenge was not getting people to agree on the motion, but timely action.

“Nobody was against [adding the numbers], but nobody was really taking the lead on it,” Ben-Yitschak stated. “It was mainly fighting against inaction of everybody saying, 'I support this, but do we really need to do this now? Can it wait another year?'” 

The campaign faced the most direct pushback at the student council meeting when it was first introduced.

Other ASM representatives raised “a lot of really good questions” about whether the numbers could potentially be triggering, scare freshmen entering college for the first time or not be the best way to solve the problem, Ben-Yitschak said. 

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At the meeting, Ben-Yitschak cited the state of California and other schools, such as Northwestern University and Ohio State University, that already mandate similar emergency numbers on the backs of their student ID cards. And research doesn’t support that adding the numbers causes harm to students, he added.

The UW-Madison Faculty Senate and Academic Staff Assembly both passed resolutions in support of ASM’s campaign to add the three phone numbers to the back of Wiscards. The support from all the campus’ shared governance groups encouraged both the university and the state representatives, Ben-Yitschak said. 

After the state legislation passed in the Senate, UW-Madison was “ready to move” on the project, said Director of the Wisconsin Union Mark Guthier. 

A team of people led by Guthier — including Ben-Yitschak and other representatives from ASM, UHS, UWPD and the Wiscard office, with input from UW Communications and UW Office of Legal Affairs — will spend a little over a month redesigning the backs of the Wiscards to fit the suicide prevention hotline. 

Although the bill only requires the suicide prevention hotline, Ben-Yitschak is still aiming for all three numbers from his original ASM campaign to end up on the IDs. The inclusion of the Rape Crisis Line and UWPD’s phone number will be discussed at the design meetings, but Ben-Yitschak doesn’t think it will be too difficult to get the other two numbers approved. 

Guthier agreed, as he previously approved all three numbers and believes the team will too.

“We're happy to help make it work, however many can fit on the back,” Guthier said.

The bill also allows for the substitution of a local suicide prevention hotline. Ben-Yitschak stated the group may decide to swap the national hotline for the UHS Mental Health Crisis Line.

The goal is to redesign the Wiscards in time for Student Orientation Advising and Registration, when incoming freshmen typically pick up their ID cards. In order to do so, the design needs to be finished by the March 15 deadline, according to Ben-Yitschak. 

At the moment, only incoming freshmen will be receiving the new Wiscards, Guthier said. Students will also be able to get one of the new ID cards if they lose theirs and need a new one printed. 

Since Wiscards are printed on demand, the redesign will not add any extra costs for students or UW-Madison. 

Ben-Yitschak said he is proud of how the campaign has grown — from a way to help students who aren’t able to search emergency hotline numbers online to a broader way to show support for people struggling on campus. 

“It's symbolic in the sense of we're telling our students that we know this is an issue, and there is always help for them if they need it,” he said. “This is [our] way of saying we're here for each other and the university is here for us — that we're willing to change our design so that students have the resources they need during whatever they're going through.”

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