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What’s the holdup? UW mental health resources looking to restructure to better serve students

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9/23 Hall Health

Hall Health and the Counseling Center — the UW’s two mental health service facilities — are facing a major supply and demand dilemma. With roughly 30 mental health professionals serving over 47,000 students (a ratio of roughly one counselor to 1,700 students), wait times to see a counselor can be several weeks.

According to Patricia Atwater, director of health promotion at Hall Health, this wait time is Hall Health’s biggest concern.

While the student Senate has spent the last couple of weeks outlining a plan to lobby the state legislature for more mental health resources, it may take a complete restructuring of both Hall Health and the Counseling Center to see significant improvement.

Currently, a student seeking mental health counseling must schedule an intake appointment over the phone. In the initial 20 minute appointment at Hall Health, or 45–50 minute appointment at the Counseling Center, a counselor will ask the student initial screening questions to get to know them, discuss their health insurance, and determine the best treatment plan, which can range from individual or group counseling to referrals or off-campus therapists.

While this flexible model allows for individualized treatment plans that will address a student’s specific needs, it falls short in terms of efficiency. Without some sort of online calendar of each counselor’s availability, students are only able to schedule appointments over the phone. If students need to attend multiple sessions, each appointment must be scheduled individually and on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Currently, the most immediate roadblock to hiring more counselors or providing other mental health services comes from a lack of funding. All of the Counseling Center’s services and part of Hall Health’s services are funded through the Services and Activities Fee (SAF). 

Atwater spoke about a failed attempt last year to get an increase of funding from SAF, which also funds programs such as ASUW, the IMA, and the Ethnic Cultural Center. 

Although SAF funding increased from $131 per student to $136 last year, it is restricted by state legislature and its funding can’t be raised above a certain amount. 

The rest of the funding comes from billing students’ health insurance, which, according to Atwater, would be more effective if the university provided insurance to students. A bill is currently being amended in the student Senate to include opt-out university-provided health care.

“If all students were to have health insurance and we billed health insurance for mental health services, that could be a way to avoid having to increase student fees,” Atwater said. “That's the million-dollar question.”

Another source of funding, and the least effective, according to Atwater, would be private grants and individual donations. While this type of funding might provide a short-term solution, Atwater said that it would be unrealistic to rely on it to fund the large scale operation of hiring staff and paying for all the mental health services provided. Identifying individual donors and applying for grants would also take a long time, further delaying effective care for students.

In the meantime, the university has several processes in place to reexamine and possibly restructure the organization of its mental health resources. Atwater spoke about centralizing the websites for Hall Health and the Counseling Center so students don’t have to search both for essentially the same services. There have even been preliminary discussions of possibly combining both centers, which would require finding a centralized location.

Atwater and Megan Kennedy, director of the UW Resilience Lab, also spoke about education faculty members to incorporate well-being and mental health resources into their class curriculum.

The key to providing the mental health services students need, however, is putting them at the forefront of this issue. Farah Nadeem, a graduate student in the electrical engineering department, is currently working with other students on the Provost’s Advisory Committee for Students to tackle the issue of mental health services from a student perspective. 

Part of Nadeem’s job is working with a mental health task force over the next year to gather student input and analyze the budget pieces that provide mental health services, which are then used to advise the Provost on the best service delivery model they should adapt for the services, keeping in mind the different needs of each student or student group. 

“One of the things that makes a lot of sense to me is the fact that ‘one size fits all’ is not a great solution,” Nadeem said. “We are trying to put forward the best solution or set of solutions that we can, but we also recognize that there has to be room for services to improve and grow.”

Reach writer Nicole Pasia at Twitter: @Nicoleapasia 

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