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Friday, February 23, 2024
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Student petition demands more funding, staff for university mental health services

Students are frustrated with UHS’s limited sessions, long wait times and lack of staff.

University Health Services (UHS) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has 64 mental health clinicians, five psychiatric providers, two psychiatric nurses and six full-time trainees who all provide mental health support to students. UHS received a budget of $29.9 million during the 2021-22 academic year — less than 1% of the university budget and almost $10 million less than what was allocated to the Wisconsin Union.

Leland Hermus, who is in his last semester of a mechanical systems engineering degree, thinks it is imperative that the university prioritize its mental health access. He started a petition last Monday urging the university to allocate more funding toward that infrastructure. As of Wednesday, the petition approached 2,000 signatures.

Hermus emphasized the importance of mental health support on a college campus. Among college students, suicide is the second-leading cause of death and over 24,000 students are known to attempt suicide each year.

One roadblock to meaningful progress is the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide, according to Hermus. It is crucial, he said, to overcome that stigma as a university community — especially when Badgers “have tried committing suicide, or have friends that they’ve lost because of suicide.”

The issue hits particularly close to home for Hermus, whose father took his own life in 2020. He described the emotional turmoil that followed and said therapy allowed him to work his way back to stability. In the wake of his father’s suicide, he sought help through UHS, where a provider made an exception and found space for Hermus in a full schedule.

“I got the help that I needed, but that was only because they were willing to add me to their schedule, and they typically don’t do that,” reflected Hermus. “I thought about it for a long time, and I was thinking, how many other students don’t get that? [I got help] because someone at UHS felt really bad.”

Jackie Garwood is a fifth-year UW-Madison student in the ROTC program. Her main issue with UHS is one many students echoed: wait times. According to Garwood, a student seeking mental help through UHS could expect to wait no less than a month and often more. 

According to Sarah Clifford Glapa, UHS Associate Director of Marketing and Health Communications, Mental Health Services at UHS maintain daily appointment availability for crisis situations and serve as a resource to students who need to talk to a counselor. UHS also offers daily drop-in consultations with a counselor, available virtually and at various sites across campus. 

Last year, the UW-Madison community lost one of its members, Sarah Shulze, to suicide. Shulze was a member of the track and field team, and Garwood, a Badger rower, said this prompted UW Athletics to provide increased support for its student-athletes.

Following Shulze’s passing, UW hired more psychiatric professionals to its athletic support staff — “but the thing was that only benefited athletics, [which is] such a small population,” said Garwood.

Garwood’s sister is also a UW-Madison student, but she is not an athlete. When she was struggling with an eating disorder, she was limited in her access to services, Garwood said. She had to wait two months to see help, and when she did, her sessions were limited by a credit system.

“UHS didn’t cover it after a certain point, and she had to find somebody completely different, which slowed her process down quite a bit,” said Garwood of her sister’s experience. “Once you build a connection [with a provider], it’s hard to rebuild and reopen to somebody else.”

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Generally, according to Hermus, people’s issues with UHS are not with the providers or the services themselves — UHS is working with Hermus on his petition, which he clarified “was not made with malicious intent [towards UHS], it’s really just to get the students the help they need and what they deserve.”

According to Glapa, UHS leadership has met with Hermus about the petition and will continue to engage with students about their concerns. UHS did not help develop or administer the petition.

Hermus believes students’ issues with UHS generally stem from a lack of funding, which frustrates them and he urged the university to rectify it. 

“Our budget is very large,” he said. “And having more mental health support for our students should be a top priority, not something that's lower on the list. That should be the first thing they look at next year when they try to figure out where they’re putting all their money.”

UW System President Jay Rothman recently proposed a 5% tuition hike, and Hermus urged students to look at whether their money will be “going towards something that benefits us” — namely, mental health resources.

When it comes to the university’s budgeting priorities, Hermus asks UW-Madison, “How important are your students? How important is our mental health?”

Editor's note: This story was updated on April 14 at 10:38 p.m. to reflect UHS mental health staff, mental health daily availability for crisis situations and UHS' role in creating the petition. 

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Cormac LaLiberte

Cormac LaLiberte is the current editor of the college news desk. He is a junior studying linguistics, and has previously reported primarily on social issues pertaining to UW-Madison. Get in touch on Twitter @CormacLaLiberte.

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