February 5, 2012

UW-Milwaukee strives to improve mental health care

About this story

Jenny Peek and Kate Prengaman reported this story with other journalism students in a UW-Madison class taught by Professor Deborah Blum, in collaboration with the nonprofit, nonpartisan Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Investigative Journalism Education Consortium, which includes Midwestern university journalism professors and students working on news projects in the public interest. The Consortium is supported by a grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. Read the IJEC consortium stories

Five years ago, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee had the worst mental health care of any four-year UW institution, by some measures.

Students waited the longest for counseling appointments — up to four weeks, according to a UW System audit. UWM had just one counselor for every 4,289 students, the highest ratio of any four-year UW campus and nearly three times worse than the international standard.

But the university has worked to shift those figures. In 2008, it formed a task force to identify students’ needs and find ways to improve. Some outcomes:

  • The university hired two more counselors and quadrupled its number of counseling groups, said counseling center director Paul Dupont.
  • Like most other UW campuses, UWM now uses a triage system to identify and help at-risk students first.
  • Staffers now follow up with students referred off campus for treatment. They also track high-risk students throughout their care, Dupont said, and notify authorities if students who leave counseling are considered imminently likely to hurt themselves or others.
  • The campus has stepped up suicide prevention efforts, having trained about 675 students, faculty and staff how to recognize when someone could be suicidal and assist.
  • To encourage students to seek help when they might not be comfortable coming to therapy, plans are under way for counselors to offer all students first-come, first-serve consultations at designated times and locations outside the counseling center.

Those changes have brought results. While UWM’s counselor-to-student ratio remains the worst among four-year UW institutions, it has improved by 20 percent. Wait times have dropped to three weeks during busy times of the semester, said Dupont, even though there’s been a 32 percent increase in the number of new counseling appointments in the last two years.

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