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Grant makes stress services possible

November 2, 2006

Midterms are underway at UW-River Falls, and with the help of a $10,000 grant Student Health Services (SHS) is expanding its resources to help students cope.

Personal Counselor Gretchen Link said there is an increase in students who request counseling during midterms.

“The primary reason students come in is stress,” Link said. “Midterms tend to trigger stress, especially if one has not kept up with assignments and not prepared to take the tests.”

Link is one of five authors of the grant. The others are SHS Director Alice Reilly-Myklebust, Personal Counselor Jennifer Elsesser, College of Arts and Sciences Dean Terry Brown and CAS Associate Dean Brad Caskey.

“Faculty are seeing more mental health issues in their classes,” Elsesser said.

Caskey, a psychology professor, said the most noticeable mental health issues during midterms affect freshmen.

“More and more it seems like their senior year in high school there’s not a lot of pressure on them,” Caskey said. “Then they come to college and they’re literally overwhelmed.”

There is also an effect on seniors, but for different reasons.

“I think there’s a lot of uncertainty about what they’re going to do next,” Caskey said.

The pressure for seniors builds as their final semester moves forward.

“I’m worried and excited,” said senior Lena Nguyen, who graduates in December.

UWRF is one of 12 universities in the nation to receive this type of mental health grant.

The grant, accepted on Oct. 1, was the direct result of last year’s $2,500 grant, which initiated two campus discussion groups and a presentation by Harvard University’s Chief of Mental Health Services Richard Kadison.

The grant paid immediate dividends with the renovation of the UWRF Counseling Services Web site and the hiring of new part-time Personal Counselor David Sommers.

Sommers began work here Oct. 24 and had four appointments with students in his first two days.

“At this point I am extremely impressed with the intellectual abilities and complexities students demonstrate,” he said.

The hiring of Sommers during midterms was coincidental.

There are two full-time personal counselors at UWRF - Link and Elsesser.

Elsesser was made a full-time counselor in 2006 after serving as a part-time counselor since 2003. UWRF also has two part-time counselors - Jennifer Herink, who is on maternity leave, and Sommers.

But there is still a need for at least one more counselor on campus.

The average student to counselor ratio in the United States is 1,500-1. With the hiring of Sommers the ratio at UWRF is still more than 2,000-1.

The wait for an appointment with a counselor is one week, unless it’s an emergency situation.

Last year one student had to wait three weeks to get an appointment with a counselor, which brought to light the fact that SHS was ill-equipped to deal with the increase in student needs.

“I would like to say that in five years we have the healthiest campus in the UW system,” Brown said.

The number of students Caskey sees with mental health issues has increased during his 15 years on campus.

“One of the things that became very apparent was that most faculty and staff had no training in dealing with this issue,” he said.

Grant funds allowed Elsesser to design a faculty guide for dealing with student emotional distress.

“[Faculty] just felt kind of helpless dealing with those issues,” she said.

The grant will also allow SHS to expand its employee base. The department is in the process of hiring two student mental health interns.

“We’re hoping that students can help us more creatively,” Reilly-Myklebust said.

SHS is also hoping the grant can help get a psychiatrist to assist the staff.

“I’m glad the school offers things for people that can’t cope,” Junior Laura Harsdorf, who has not sought counseling on campus, said. During stressful times such as midterms and finals she said she keeps everything in perspective.

“You not only have exams, but you have homework and your personal life,” she said. “You have to get your mental, emotional, spiritual and physical life lined up.”