Despite the University of Wisconsin’s budgetary challenges, University Health Services is expanding its services to better serve the needs of underrepresented students.

As a part of UW’s new cultural competency initiatives to promote inclusivity and diversity on campus, UHS has taken the first step in a multi-year process to expand mental health staffing.

To address the needs of underrepresented students, UHS has hired two professionals who specialize in the needs of students of color, said Andrea Lawson, UHS interim co-director of mental health services.

Along with the two recent hires, Lisa Imhoff and Simone Collins, who will primarily work with students of color on campus, UHS added two post-doctoral residents to their team and have secured permanent funding for two academic year counselors, Lawson added.

Providing a safe, comfortable place for students of color to share their experiences

As a biracial, former first-generation college student herself, new UHS hire Lisa Imhoff can empathize with the struggle some underrepresented students face when seeking mental health services.

Imhoff said historically, underrepresented and underserved students don’t always have access to mental health services.

“There may be a stigma surrounding seeking mental health services, or there might be shame involved depending on family of origin and cultural issues where mental health is not understood or understood differently,” Imhoff said.

Coming from a similar background as the students she works with, Imhoff said there is a need to reach underserved students on UW campus — especially with the current climate.

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Anytime a student of color hears about a hate or bias incident, she said it can bring up their own negative, traumatic experiences. New to UHS, Imhoff said she can tell UHS prioritizes the needs of students of color and that they truly care.

“I would hope that students of color and underserved, underrepresented students feel safe bringing these concerns to counseling staff at UHS,” Imhoff said. “[UHS] is being sensitive to these issues.”

With limited resources, comes limited services for students

While university officials have voiced their desire to provide more services to underrepresented students on campus, often, they are financially limited in what they can accomplish.

With Gov. Scott Walker cutting $250 million from the UW System in the last state budget, departments all around campus have needed to scale down.

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UHS is no exception to this trend. But what makes UHS’s cuts in funding different is that the consequences of limiting mental health services to students may be “disturbing” and “dangerous,” Jack Nitschke, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology, said.

“If we make it harder for students to get the services they need, we’re just leaving them to deal with issues like depression and anxiety on their own,” Nitschke said. “With limited resources, we’re not helping educate students on what they can do and show them that there are certain tools that can be taught or medications that can be sought.”

If students don’t have access to mental health services, they are left to suffer, Nitschke said. There are many consequences to leaving students to deal with these issues on their own, he said, ranging from self-harm behaviors to extreme cases such as suicide.

With a student population of nearly 50,000 undergraduates and graduates, Lawson said unfortunately not everyone can have as much counseling as they want or need.

To focus on the needs of most students in the most effective manner, UHS limits the number of individual counseling sessions available to 10 per academic calendar and 20 in their academic degree, Lawson said.

That means if a student were to use 10 sessions their freshman year and 10 during their sophomore year, they will have used up their 20 for their undergraduate studies, and will no longer be eligible for individual counseling, Lawson said.

Additionally, the School of Engineering and School of Medicine have partnerships that allow students to have an unlimited amount of sessions, Lawson said.

“We want to be able to do good with those resources,” Lawson said. “By limiting the number of sessions, we’re also able to extend other resources like drop-in consultations around campus, group counseling and partnerships with organizations like the LGBTQ+ center.”

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The 10-session cap is not an arbitrary figure, however. Lawson said that the student comes in for an average of four to five sessions — a number that is also reported nationally, according to the Association for University and College Counseling Directors.

Despite limited resources, other services remain available

Despite the 10-session cap for individual counseling, students are still able to access group counseling, wellness services, psychiatric services, access consultations and drop-in consultations in an unlimited amount, Lawson said.

Students are also welcome to come into UHS any day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. to meet with care managers who support students by referring them to additional resources and services.

The program Let’s Talk, which meets at five designated locations around campus, provides appointment-free, drop-in consultations at no cost. At each location, a counselor is available to listen, give feedback, offer empathic support, or just be there and help students work through a decision or a problem they’re facing, Lawson said.

Making the most out of the least — for now

As UHS slowly begins to expand its budget, Lawson recognizes that limited funding is something that impacts and affects UHS every day.

Despite the struggle, the hiring of two new professionals to address the needs of students of color, Lawson said, is one step forward in expanding mental health services at UHS.

“If someone were to give us a ton of money, of course we would love to expand our resources,” Lawson said. “If we were able to hire additional staff, we would be able to expand the services we have, whether it’s reevaluating session limit or providing some other targeted service students are in need of.”

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While additional funding would certainly help, Lawson said she thinks student voices can also play a role.

Pointing to the success of the Student Services Finance Committee last spring where they approved an UHS budget proposal to expand mental health and sexual assault services, Lawson said when students express “what they want want and what they need,” others get “on board with making it happen.”

“If you feel like you need this or we need more service than we can provide, then advocate for us,” Lawson said. “Use your voice and the influences you have to make those changes.”