Invisible illnesses burden more students than meets the eye

UW-Madison students who suffer from invisible illnesses, both mental and physical, combat alienation and discomfort daily with help from collaborative resources within University Health Services. 

Image By: Laura Mahoney

Invisible illnesses burden more students than meets the eye

Standing tall at six-foot-two, with a wide grin and pencil in between thumb and forefinger, UW-Madison sophomore Ruben Arndt looks like any other student. While classmates may assume from his appearance that he's in perfect health, what they can’t see is the pain of degenerative disk disease, hernias and a broken spine.

“A lot of people who have back pain probably have this and it goes undiagnosed a lot,” Arndt said. “[Having a] degenerative disc disease means the discs in my back are bad … and because of that it lead to other troubles in my back.”

While health issues like this may be common for many, they are also invisible to the casual observer, which poses another set of obstacles.

Invisible disorders are seen on campus more often than students may realize, according to Lisa Webne-Behrman, a psychologist at University Health Services. Webne-Behrman gave examples of depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and learning disabilities.

However, physical ailments can also be missed by sight alone.

William Kinsey, a family doctor at UHS, listed several examples, including Type 1 diabetes, digestive problems, certain types of arthritis and congenital heart disease.

According to Arndt, it was hard for even doctors to pinpoint his exact problem; it took two painful days in the hospital before staff could determine his spine was broken. In addition, there are even less visibly diagnosable signs as time passes.

An invisible illness presents unique challenges not inherent to a visible illness. For Arndt, chronic back pain that emerged during his senior year of high school forced him to permanently change his behavior. Everyday movements such as jumping can aggravate his back, making it hard to bend over or even walk.

“It’s those things that aren’t flashy,” Arndt said. “If you break your leg and can’t walk, people get that. If you break your spine and then four years later … you can’t go skydiving with your friends … people aren’t as inclined to accept that.”

Arndt said his disorder puts a level of social pressure on him that he never had to face before. Now, everyday social settings — like sitting at a table rather than a booth — can irritate his condition.

“[I wonder] how much discomfort can I contain within myself without putting that burden on other people,” he said. “It’s not a constant presence but it’s a consistent thing on my mind every day.”

Riley Robinson, a UW-Madison sophomore, said he also feels that his disorders isolate him and impair many facets of his life. For Robinson it’s not a physical illness but a mental one — he was diagnosed with severe depression and generalized anxiety disorder in high school.

According to Webne-Behrman, Robinson’s feelings are common. “Something like depression can affect things like sleep, appetite, attention and focus, all the skills you need to be engaged in school and give it your all,” she explained.

While treatment is helpful, there is often a trial and error approach — which can be lengthy — before finding which type of treatment is most effective. This has been the case for Robinson.

Medication can often create negative side effects, and Robinson remarked that the anti-depressants at one point made him feel emotionless. Robinson even found that the medication he was on made him feel dangerously worse.
“I felt like I was more suicidal on my meds,” Robinson said.

UHS provides different resources for both mental and physical invisible illnesses. According to Webne-Behrman, some psychologists including herself work at a station called Behavioral Health, where psychologists work side by side with medical providers.

“A lot of the time students will seek medical services before they seek counseling services,” Webne-Behrman said. “It’s harder to walk through the doors of a counseling session, it feels a little more accessible to see your doctor.”

Behavioral health services offer students short-term treatment — one or two approximately 30-minute sessions — which are often strategy-focused. For instance, one can come in looking to subdue headaches, sleep better or diminish stress.

In contrast, counseling sessions are long-term and ongoing. Here, students can understand what their issues and concerns are and form a relationship with a therapist, Webne-Behrman said. Other services on this floor include assisting students in improving focus, dealing with anxiety and managing chronic pain.

As far as physical invisible illnesses, Kinsey said chronic disease management is 10 percent of the work done at UHS. To treat illnesses like diabetes and chronic pain, Kinsey said UHS tries to limit medication use.

“We really are getting away, significantly, from having medication as the primary source of treatment for chronic pain,” Kinsey said.

Kinsey suggested focusing on aspects of daily life, such as sleep, nutritional habits or exercise if they have a positive impact on one’s disease. Additionally, UHS has a therapy group for those afflicted with chronic pain. Kinsey also listed relaxation techniques as helpful and said people can also benefit from reflecting on their perception of themselves.

“That mind-body connection between pain and what your day-to-day experience is, is highly affected by your perceptions,” said Kinsey.

Another resource for students with chronic or invisible illnesses is the McBurney Center, which serves students with disabilities on campus. At the center, students are assigned a visa, which is an individualized accommodations plan. For instance, a deaf student may get a sign language interpreter and a notetaker, while someone with an anxiety or panic attack disorder might be able to take an exam in a room with a smaller amount of students.

Arndt knows his back will never fully recover, and Robinson said his outlook on life may sometimes be negative.

However, both stay optimistic.

“I know I’m not going to [have a healthy back] … But I’m fine, I’m good like this. And if I get worse, I’ll be good like that too,” said Arndt. “There’s a lot more to life than having a back.”

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