KELLY MEYERHOFER Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Late fall is crunch time for John Achter and his team of counselors across the state public university system.
The novelty of the new school year has worn off, the realities of classes have set in and finals are looming. An increasing number of students have been seeking counseling in recent years, often during this stressful period of the semester.
The question for institutions is how to provide mental health support amid high staff turnover and budget constraints. Finding an answer can be the difference between a student dropping out or graduating.
Between 2012 and 2022, UW counseling centers helped retain about 20,000 students who said they were thinking of leaving school before receiving counseling and indicated that counseling helped them stay on track.
One temporary solution showing some promise: teleheath services. UW campuses contracted with an outside provider earlier this year, helping alleviate caseloads at understaffed campuses.
“We’re very thankful to be able to jump in and respond at a really important time,” Achter said.
Data from the state’s public universities sheds light on the supply and demand of student counseling centers:
The number of students seeking counseling has grown
There are several reasons why people might avoid seeking mental health services, said Riley McGrath, counseling director at UW-Eau Claire.
Cost is a big barrier. But college students pay annual fees instead of out-of-pocket for services.
The second barrier is proximity − not much of an issue for students living on or near campus.
Stigma is often the third barrier, but colleges and students have done much work on this front.
“When you do a good job removing the top three barriers, the floodgates open up,” McGrath said.
Nearly 15,000 students sought campus counseling services last school year, the second highest since tracking began in 2012-13. On average, students attended five sessions with a counselor.
More students entering college with existing health needs
More UW students come onto campuses with a history of mental health treatment. The percentage of counseling clients reporting previous counseling, a history of medication or prior hospitalization exceeds national averages.
Indicators of poor mental health among UW students, such as suicide attempts, have been on the rise in recent years, though data from last year show some signs of tapering off. The number of counseling clients with a history of suicidal thoughts (35%), non-suicidal self-injury (28%) and suicide attempts (11%) were higher than a decade ago.
“These trends continue to suggest that many UW students seeking counseling experience longstanding, serious and complex mental health needs,” a 2022-23 UW system report said.
Anxiety, depression and other concerns rose during COVID and have stayed high
Anxiety, stress and depression are the most common concerns. Prevalence has increased from a decade ago, peaked during 2020 and still remains higher than in pre-pandemic years.
“I think people are struggling with loneliness and belonging and social anxiety that was created from lockdown and being socially isolated,” said UW-Milwaukee counseling director Carrie Fleider. “We’re having students who are now freshmen who really spent the last three years in this state of flux with isolation and hybrid and lack of opportunities that they would have (had) prior to the pandemic.”
Staffing counseling centers is challenging
The number of professional staff relative to campus enrollment is a “critical indicator” of the counseling center’s ability to provide timely and effective services, according to UW system.
The International Accreditation of Counseling Services recommends one counselor for every 1,500 students. The preferred ratio is 1:1,000 — a standard three of the 13 schools met last school year.
“We’re nowhere near that (1:1,000 ratio),” said Fleider, who leads a staff of 15 therapists. “We do our best.”
Retention and burnout among counselors are major concerns for UW counseling centers.
More than 50 positions have turned over in the last five years, the UW system reported. Some campus centers experienced more than 100% turnover in that time period.
The UW system’s new contract with Mantra, a digital mental health clinic, has helped close the gap. Using $5 million in federal COVID-19 relief money, the partnership began in January. Funding runs out in 2025.
Mantra’s diverse range of counselors coordinate care with campus-based services. It offers telehelath services, 24/7 mental health support and after-hours care through a crisis line.
The flexible hours mean students can seek help on nights and weekends. Having additional counselors has helped reduce wait times, a perennial complaint among students.
At UW-Eau Claire, for example, appointment wait time dropped from 17 days in fall 2022 to nine days in the spring semester.
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