More and more students are going to Francie Biesanz for mental
health help. The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse counselor holds
about five 45-minute sessions a day with students. Anxiety,
depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder — Biesanz sees them
Some students wait as long as three weeks for a full session.
Her department still tries to do outreach, to catch students who
might fall under the radar, but it’s harder now to find the time,
Biesanz’s words echo a national concern: Many colleges lack the
resources to handle the growing number of students seeking care.
The problem has become even more urgent in the wake of mass
shootings by troubled students at Virginia Tech and Northern
UW-L is one of eight UW System campuses that meet
recommendations made by a 2008 system audit calling for one mental
health provider for every 2,000 students. UW-L brushes the ceiling,
with one provider for every 1,949 students. UW-L fails to meet the
stricter international standard of one staffer for every 1,000 to
1,500 students. Only two UW campuses do: UW-Stevens Point and
In Wisconsin, understaffed counseling centers are prioritizing
services for students with urgent needs, expanding group therapy to
increase access to care, and referring students off campus for
A decade ago, Thomas Murphy was a college dropout who used
alcohol and drugs to deal with undiagnosed depression. Now he’s
back at UW-Madison, where he co-leads a chapter of Active Minds, a
national, student-run group promoting open conversations about
Therapy made the difference for Murphy. But he can’t receive it
at school. When he re-enrolled at UW-Madison and went to the
counseling center, he walked out with no appointment and a list of
“They couldn’t help me because of my extensive history,” Murphy
said. “So I go out and pay on my own for the services I need.”
Those cases are rare at UW-L, but they do happen, Biesanz said.
Students who need long-term mental health care are referred to
community providers so they can receive a more consistent treatment
schedule. UW-L covers only 10 sessions a year.
In collaboration with a reporting class taught by UW-Madison
Professor Deborah Blum, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative
Journalism examined mental health services at the UW System’s 13
four-year campuses. The project included extensive public records
requests, interviews with students and officials, and data
The analysis also found that many students wait two weeks or
longer between their intake appointment and first regular
Campuses such as UW-La Crosse and UW-Madison have developed
strategies for getting help sooner and to more students.
UW-L offers shorter on-call sessions to students who need
immediate help, where problems can be addressed and a suitable form
of treatment can be decided.
“We kind of let them define what the crisis is,” said Dr.
Bridgette Hensley, director of UW-L’s counseling and testing
The university is offering nearly 10 different types of group
sessions for the spring semester – including a group for Drake Hall
residents who were forced from their home because of the recent
Groups help handle the burgeoning flow of students to a
department that works with staff limited by tight budget
constraints. UW-L’s counseling department can’t add more providers
but contracts out when needed, Hensley said.
“Certainly funding for positions is difficult to come by,”
Hensley said. “We try to be creative by how we serve students,”
At UW-Madison, such alternate forms of treatment include drop-in
groups, confidential consultations in several campus locations and
more than 25 ongoing process and support groups to help students
deal with problems from low self-esteem to grief.
A growing need
Not only are more students using UW-L’s counseling services,
their mental health problems are growing more severe, said Dr.
Bridgette Hensley, director of UW-L’s counseling and testing
“They’re very overwhelmed, they’re anxious they’re depressed,”
Almost 80 percent of college counseling center directors
reported seeing more students in crisis during the past five years,
according to a 2011 national survey. The same study found that
students with severe psychological problems now account for nearly
40 percent of counseling center visits – more than double the
proportion in 2000. Surveys by the American College Health
Association show almost one in five college students have seriously
Hensley said about 50 to 60 students visit UW-L counseling
offices for individual therapy each week.
These findings aren’t all bad news, said psychologist Danielle
Oakley, director of mental health services at UW-Madison, where
counseling visits increased 10 percent last year alone. More people
are seeking help, and better psychiatric medications have enabled
students to attend college who couldn’t have a generation ago, she
But Oakley said the faltering economy is fueling worries about
paying for school. Many students are stressed, overworked and
sleep-deprived, which can cause mental health problems.
“If there is a silver lining in something like that happening,
it’s put the spotlight on some needs on our campus,” said John
Achter, counseling director at UW-Stout.
Long waits, but some improvements
UW-Madison senior Rachel Steidl grappled with depression and
loneliness her freshman year. Steidl later saw a psychology intern
at the campus counseling center. She learned to open up more and
made friends. When she returned to the center this year, an intake
provider saw her the same day to assess her needs.
That’s because at Oakley’s urging, UW-Madison began offering
same-day assessments in early 2011.
“We don’t want any barriers to get to us,” Oakley said. “The day
you decide that you want support, all you have to do is walk
But what happened next frustrated Steidl. Because her immediate
needs weren’t deemed urgent, she said, she was asked to wait three
weeks for her next appointment.
Most UW campuses use such triage systems to help students in
crisis first. UW-Eau Claire student Anneliese Vaini, for example,
was prescribed Paxil when she sought help for panic attacks in
2009. After she stopped eating and sleeping and went on a
“financially disastrous” shopping spree, her campus counselor and
psychiatrist identified and treated her bipolar disorder.
“They saved my life. Literally,” said Vaini, who now works as a
pet groomer. “I wasn’t able to complete a degree, but they gave me
a brighter future than education.”
Health insurance “poses great barriers” for students who can’t
get the services they need on campus, said Dr. Sarah Van Orman,
UW-Madison’s health services director. She cited campus surveys
that show 6 to 8 percent of UW-Madison students are uninsured and
another 30 to 40 percent have no coverage in the Madison area.
A case manager now connects these students to agencies that
charge a fraction of the going rate or to the student health
insurance plan. She also helps students navigate deductibles and
Two years ago, Steidl and fellow student Matt Vohl revived the
campus chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. More
than 70 students signed up at the campus organizational fair last
September, Vohl said.
“The best way to reduce the stigma is by educating people,” Vohl
added. “We want to let people know that (mental illness) is not
this inherent condition that makes people freaks, it’s not
demonizing, it shouldn’t be taboo. It’s something that can affect
Amy Karon is a reporter for the Wisconsin Center for
Investigative Journalism. Kate Prengaman, Jenny Peek and Sam
Zastrow contributed as students in a UW-Madison journalism class
taught by Professor Deborah Blum, in collaboration with the
nonprofit, nonpartisan Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The Center
also collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin
Public Radio and other news media. Works created, published, posted
or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views
or opinions of UW-Madison or its affiliates.
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