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LSA Student Government strives to better the lives of our students through various advocacy work, resolutions, as well as different projects. One recent success for our government comes in the form of the Private Therapy Reimbursement Program, which was an initiative brought up by our Health Subcommittee. The Health Subcommittee, which strives to improve the mental and emotional health of our constituents, has been extremely successful, especially when considering the massive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our students. Committee members and Health leadership noticed the
mental toll of a global pandemic on student wellbeing, and worked tirelessly to address those pressing issues.
For more information regarding the Private Therapy Reimbursement Program, we contacted Health leadership, Gaurie Gunasekaran and Magda Wojtara, as well as a committee member who also was responsible for the implementation of the program, Alex Nguyen.
What brought about the idea for a Private Therapy Reimbursement Program?
Gunasekaran: As the Chair of the Health Subcommittee, I am dedicated to viewing and acknowledging the various types of health that have been affected by the pandemic. While we tend to primarily focus on physical health, the stress of our ongoing situation has really affected the mental health and emotional health of students on campus. This can be seen by how overbooked the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at the University of Michigan have been, though they are actively trying very hard to adapt to the needs of students. Due to the remote situation we are all in right now, many students have begun seeking therapy from private companies. However, private therapy can be very expensive. Appointments can range anywhere from $50 to $300 per hour. Financial burdens, while it often is, should never be a reason for students to not seek private therapy. Thus, the Health Subcommittee came up with the idea of the Private Therapy Reimbursement Program, where we will reimburse students up to $25 dollars for private therapy appointments. We have further partnered with Central Student Government to implement this program. Through this program, we hope to encourage students to actively attend to their mental health needs. We also hope to de-stigmatize mental health and facilitate friendly conversation to promote a culture of care.
Wojtara: We knew that there was an increased need and demand for private therapy and other mental health services in general even before the pandemic. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic a lot of people also lost their valuable support systems at school and potentially even some personal loss (i.e. family members). We also recognize that the University of Michigan is a challenging school and that it is exceptionally difficult to go through the semester with only two "break days" which in some cases have not even been fully adhered to. It's also important to consider that there is still a very prevalent stigma in many cultural communities that mental health is fictitious and thus this stigma prevents many of our students and students at other colleges from seeking the help that they need. Therefore, we want to continue to encourage students and let them know that therapy and professional help is a good option to pursue and ideally one that won't pose a financial barrier. If CAPS and other University services are booked, we want to enable students to financially be able to afford other resources if emergency need arises.
Nguyen: CAPS was extremely receptive to this program. In fact, they started telling students about it since they are so overbooked and need to shift resources elsewhere. They are open to working with us in the future. LSA SG is working on creating a liaison position with them, and they are very open to this.
What were some challenges that you faced in order to enact this program?
Gunasekaran: The biggest challenge we faced in order to enact this program was working with the financial aid regulations in order to reimburse students for as much money as we possibly could. Everyone we talked to regarding this program, OGC, CCI, CAPS, etc were beyond supportive of our idea. However, due to financial aid restrictions, while we have enough money to reimburse up to the full cost of the private therapy appointments, we are only able to reimburse up to $25 for students' private therapy appointments. As mentioned earlier, these appointments can range from $50 to $300 per hour. It must also be understood that many students will seek private therapy regularly, on a weekly or monthly basis. Thus, $25 is not enough to support them. However, we are actively trying to work around these restrictions and find ways to support our students better.
Nguyen: The biggest challenge was and still is trying to reimburse students multiple times and for more than $25. Therapy can cost up to hundreds of dollars a session, so $25 barely makes a dent in students' pockets, though it is still better than nothing. Financial aid was terrible to work with and was our biggest obstacle because of its rules.
Why is LSA Student Government limited to a $25 reimbursement?
Wojtara: So this is due to a stipulation made by the financial aid office. We are unfortunately pretty limited currently on how much we can provide without it impacting student financial aid packages, and we recognize that it is important to make sure that financial aid is not disrupted for students with financial need and need for private therapy.
The University of Michigan currently has a program dedicated to mental health, CAPS. How did they feel about this project, and are they open to further collaborating with LSA Student Government on any specific projects in the future?
Gunasekaran: We met with CAPS to discuss our idea and they are extremely supportive and thrilled. The Health Subcommittee and CAPS have always had a positive relationship, and we have worked together on various mental health initiatives in the past. CAPS is willing to help us advertise the Private Therapy Reimbursement Program through their resources. We will also actively work with CAPS to provide better mental health resources to students through them. As I have always said and want to stress, the Private Therapy Reimbursement Program is a temporary solution to a permanent problem, the permanent problem being the declining mental health of students on campus. We have recently taken our first step in further strengthening our relationship with CAPS by creating a Health Subcommittee and CAPS liaison position. Through this position, we will actively work with CAPS to target mental health from all angles to have the best results.
Wojtara: CAPS has been an excellent collaborator in this project and one that we have met with several times in order to discuss the best way to offer this program to students. Going forward we are introducing a CAPS liaison position within LSA SG to continue to scaffold those good relationships that we have built over the course of the project. The liaison will meet with a representative from CAPS twice a month with relevant updates on programs and questions and come to the Health Subcommittee meeting to deliver a report once a month.
What has the student reaction been regarding this project? Have there been many requests for reimbursement?
Wojtara: Thus far we have allotted around ~$350 from the LSA SG funds and the equivalent amount from CSG for a total of around ~$700. We have had more requests but the invoices provided for those were invalid and thus we need CSG's office manager to work on solutions to mitigate this.
What are your next steps regarding this project or the HEALTH subcommittee as a whole?
Gunasekaran: The next steps regarding this project are to find ways to be able to reimburse students for the full cost of their private therapy appointments. We would also like to be able to reimburse students more than once if they are seeking regular private therapy sessions. As for the Health Subcommittee in general, we have spearheaded many new programs and projects this year that have already been implemented or are about to be implemented. Some of these projects include making care packages for students in Quarantine and Isolation Housing (which include face masks, chapstick, etc), the Gratitude Challenge, and the Pulse Oximeter Project for students in Quarantine and Isolation Housing. I am totally happy and willing to elaborate on these exciting projects also if needed!
With mental health being a crucial topic of discussion and concern during the pandemic, the Private Therapy Reimbursement Program will assist in an extensive way by giving students opportunities for more obtainable therapy. Gunaskekaran, Wojtara and Nguyen have explained their dedication to this program and the challenges the committee faced in its creation. The next steps for the Health Subcommittee will be to work with the university and find solutions to fully reimburse students for private therapy.