Mental health and addiction were front and center Monday at UW-River Falls.

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes joined state Sen. Patty Schachtner on campus March 18, where panelists shared their struggles and students poised to enter the mental health profession voiced concerns about what lies ahead.

Without more resources, "we will not win this fight," Schachtner said during a news conference with fellow Democrat Barnes.

They learned from Alice Reilly-Myklebust, director of Counseling and Health Services on campus, that mental health concerns are increasing among UWRF students.

At a roundtable discussion including students from the university's social work department, Reilly-Myklebust described how issues like anxiety and depression are on the rise, according to a student survey. Data revealed 360 students seriously considered suicide in 2018, with 60 students attempting to take their own lives, she said.

"It's definitely and most certainly a concern here," Reilly-Myklebust told Schachtner and Barnes.

She said that while the number of counseling sessions is increasing, the number of counselors is not. While most students have health insurance, she said an increasing number are faced with high deductibles and costly coinsurance.

Reilly-Myklebust shared other health factors also raising concerns. She said the average body mass index (BMI) - a rate measuring body fat - among students is 27.

"What?" Schachtner gasped in response.

Reilly-Myklebust said the optimal BMI should be 25 or less.

She was joined at the meeting by social work students. Schachtner asked them what their biggest fear was as they prepare to enter the profession.

"Being burnt out," one student responded, generating a round of head nods among classmates.

The students cited a lack of resources, managing their own mental health and how to cope in stressful work environments like corrections or child protective services without impacting home life.

"Being a hero is hard," Barnes said.

Schachtner said after the meeting that she was struck by the students' self-assessment.

"They were very honest in their own situations," she said. "The days of professional trauma being put in the background are over."

'This film meant a lot'

Schachtner and Barnes later attended a film screening at the University Center, where more than 100 attendees watched "Written Off," a documentary about a Wisconsin man's fatal encounter with drugs. The man began his addiction after taking Vicodin for pain from a minor toe surgery. His battle led to heroin use, which took his life in 2010.

A panel, including River Falls Police Chief Gordie Young, Pierce County Circuit Court Judge Joe Boles, Pierce County District Attorney Sean Froelich and Pierce County Drug Court coordinator Mary Kelly fielded questions after the film. They were joined by a drug court graduate who identified himself as Chris and a current participant in the program, who gave her name as Tasha.

"This film meant a lot to me," Chris said.

Drug courts can be effective, panelists said. Schachtner agreed, but said after the meeting that investing in preventative measures is even more important.

"We can't incarcerate our way out of this problem," she said.

Audience members later weighed in, including a woman from the River Falls recovery community. She said that while treatment offerings abound in the community, there are no sober living houses for women in River Falls.

Schachtner said she was struck by that.

"I was grateful that she brought that up," she said, adding she felt confident the local recovery community would tackle the issue.

Medicaid proposal

Schachtner and Barnes voiced support during the campus visit for a provision in Gov. Tony Evers' budget proposal that would allow Wisconsin to receive Medicaid expansion funding. The Democratic governor said earlier this month in Hudson that Medicaid dollars would help fund various health-related programs for Wisconsinites.

"To separate out the Medicaid expansion from these other initiatives would be a mistake because we need those resources so that we can reallocate others," Evers said March 7.

Schachtner said 36 states including Minnesota accepted the funds, which she called critical for Wisconsin.

Barnes agreed, calling it "an issue of our values."

"I would love to hear a valid concern" against accepting the money, he said, later calling the decision to reject the funding an "effort to sabotage the Affordable Care Act."

Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls, was in the crowd during Monday's film screening. He said the issue of addiction has become a personal one that his family is enduring.

"This is not a partisan issue," he said. "This is an issue about humanity."

And while he said he joins Schachtner in seeking a solution, he disagrees that it's Medicaid expansion. He said that would require people to be removed from health insurance exchanges and move people to state-funded aid, which he argues would lead to more expenses for Wisconsin.

Zimmerman said he'd prefer an increase in the reimbursement rates for substance abuse programs, along with more drug court funding. He cited the Wisconsin Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, which he noted was funded without a Medicaid expansion. Zimmerman said the program saw a reduction in the number of opioid prescriptions and dosages in Wisconsin.

"We're headed in the right direction," he said.