Isabelle Dizon contacted her campus counseling center when she hit a low point during her sophomore year of college, but never heard back. Now a junior at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she hopes the school hires someone at the center to, at the very least, pick up the phone. Lisa Kurian Philip / WBEZ

Isabelle Dizon describes her transition to college as “messy.” She went from a public high school to a private art school that was far less diverse and cost too much, she said. The expense was stressful and she couldn’t connect with her new classmates, most of whom were more well off. Navigating the social scene over Zoom and from behind masks at the height of the pandemic made her feel even more disconnected.

So she left, worked at Target for a year then transferred to the University of Illinois at Chicago. That’s when she recognized she needed help processing all the change and upheaval she’d experienced.

Every syllabus for every class Dizon took that first semester listed the campus counseling center as a resource. It offers short-term therapy paid for by a health service fee charged to every student. So Dizon knew just where to turn to get the help she needed — or so she thought.

“I called them a couple times and it all went to voicemail … I also emailed. There was never a response,” said Dizon, now a junior and a graphic design major. “It was kind of like, ‘Well, you’re all on your own,’ and ‘You have to be tough.’ … I just wish they picked up.”

Dizon is far from alone. During the 2022-2023 school year, researchers from the Healthy Minds Network asked more than 76,000 college students across the country about their mental health. Asian and Asian American students like Dizon, whose parents are Filipino, were the least likely to describe their mental wellbeing as positive. But they were also the least likely to have gotten treatment in the previous year.

Alyson Kung, assistant director of the Asian American Resource and Cultural Center at UIC said there is stigma in some students’ communities, especially those of color and from immigrant backgrounds, around mental health challenges and treatment. Dizon, for one, said she did not want to go to her family doctor for help because she worried her parents would find out.

But Kung said the main obstacle for students is not stigma or fear — it’s a lack of access.

“UIC for a while was continuing to expand and accept more and more students, which I think is great on one hand,” said Kung, who graduated from the university more than a decade ago. “But the amount of resources was not expanding with the rate of the students that we were accepting.”

The result, Kung said, is that students who are struggling often come to her because they don’t know where else to go for help.

“I’m sort of a stopgap measure for some of these things, where the students will come to me to tell me what’s going on,” Kung said. “There’s only so much I can do as a non-mental health professional.”

Kung created a list of off-campus mental health resources, including therapists, to share with students. But she said many do not have insurance or financial resources to pay for private treatment — or they may not have time to find a provider who is a good fit because they’re working and taking care of family members.

Alyson Kung poses for photo at her desk
Alyson Kung in her office at UIC’s Asian American Cultural Resources Center. Kung said students often turn to her for help when they have mental health concerns, but there’s only so much she can do since she’s not trained as a mental health professional. Lisa Kurian Philip / WBEZ

“It’s difficult to have this extra burden of navigating this system,” Kung said. “It feels purposefully difficult.”

UIC administrators said the counseling center currently employs 24 providers, including several temporary trainees, to serve more than 22,000 undergraduate and 7,000 graduate students. Faculty and staff say there are waitlists just to get an intake session.

Raphael Florestal-Kevelier, UIC’s first assistant vice chancellor for student health and wellness, said he hopes to bring the number of providers up to 27 by the start of the fall semester, bringing the ratio down to 1,074 students for every one mental health provider. Hiring is tough because there is a shortage of behavioral health providers in Illinois, especially providers of color.

Florestal-Kevelier said he is working to remove a doctoral requirement for some positions in the counseling center to open up the candidate pool to providers who stopped at a master’s degree.

“We have such a diverse student population with diverse needs, and some students might be coming to us about relationship concerns,” he said. “It would be good for us to have a licensed family and marriage therapist on a team, and that doesn’t particularly require a clinical or counseling psychology doctoral degree.”

UIC leaders promised $4 million over six years to improve mental health resources for students after faculty brought the issue to the bargaining table during a strike in early 2023. Professors argued that their students’ unaddressed mental health needs had increased their workload.

UIC faculty strike
Stephanie Muñoz-Navarro, a non-tenure track lecturer who teaches Spanish, chants during a strike outside the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Student Center East on Jan. 20, 2023. She said mental health resources for students are important to her, adding that she referred one of her students to the counseling center after he approached her for ADHD testing, but he couldn’t book an appointment because of a waitlist. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times

Florestal-Kevelier said some of the funds promised by the university were used to hire two more counselors and to make provider pay more equitable and increase retention. But he said there is more work to be done to support student wellbeing at UIC — and at campuses across the state.

An unfunded mandate to help

In 2019, after years of rising rates of depression and anxiety among college students, Illinois lawmakers passed the Mental Health Early Action on Campus Act. The law requires public campuses, including UIC, to lower their clinician-to-student ratio and beef up their mental health resources through peer support networks and partnerships with off-campus providers.

But the state has yet to provide the $22.2 million a year government forecasters say colleges need to implement the mandate. State leaders appropriated $12.6 million for the current year and Gov. JB Pritzker proposed spending just $4 million on campus mental health in next year’s budget.

“We’ve heard from a lot of schools that they often felt like they were coming up short, like they weren’t really faithfully executing the law, that it was not becoming a priority for folks simply because of the lack of money and the lack of resources behind it,” said Lily Rocha, associate vice president of policy at NAMI Chicago, a mental health advocacy nonprofit.

“It’s a good start, but it’s not really enough to keep going,” Rocha said. “We fear that ultimately, it will be the students who will be impacted negatively by a lack of funding or a lapse of funding.”

The lingering effects of a broken promise

Isabelle Dizon never heard back from the counseling center at UIC, so she leaned on her friends and family.

“It ended up being fine,” Dizon said. “But I can’t keep doing that.”

Isabelle Dizon standing in UIC's architecture and design school hallway
Isabelle Dizon inside UIC’s architecture and design school, where she is a junior studying graphic design. Dizon said her parents are Filipino and don’t really believe in mental health issues. She worried they would look down on her for seeking therapy, so she tried to get help on her own through her campus counseling center. Lisa Kurian Philip / WBEZ

She said she doesn’t want to overburden her relationships; she has had friendships that have suffered or even ended because one person was relying too much on the other for emotional support.

“That’s what the medical professional help is for: being able to hold on to someone who’s trained to listen to your issues and then help you walk through it,” Dizon said. “Then you can go back to your friends and have healthier relationships with them.”

Dizon said she hopes the money promised by UIC leaders for mental health services is used to hire someone at the counseling center to — at the very least — pick up the phone.

Lisa Kurian Philip covers higher education for WBEZ, in partnership with Open Campus. Follow her on Twitter @LAPhilip.

Higher education reporter for WBEZ Chicago in partnership with Open Campus.