McBurney Center encourages equity, wellness as number of mental health cases climb

The number of students with McBurney Disability Resource Center VISAS soared over 10 years, causing the center to embark on mental health awareness initiatives.

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McBurney Center encourages equity, wellness as number of mental health cases climb

A student struggling with mental illness while also balancing finals, papers and other college stress may look to UW-Madison’s McBurney Center as a viable care option.

Mental health cases are increasing on a national level. This is reflected in the UW-Madison McBurney Disability Resource Center as the number of students seeking VISAS grows, according to the 2017 Annual McBurney Budget report.

The number of students registered with the McBurney Office who suffer from mental illness has skyrocketed since 2008, when there were only about 15 cases, according to Mari Magler, the director of the McBurney Disability Resource Center. Last year, 4,672 students sought mental health services at University Health Services.

“The McBurney Center’s role on campus is to work with students, staff and faculty to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to their coursework and related activities on campus,” Magler said.

Students apply for a VISA on the official McBurney website. Applications are then sent to a doctor or clinic for official diagnosis, verifying that the disability is legitimate under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The ADA defines a person with a disability as someone “who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.”

“At the McBurney Center, we determine if the student’s condition substantially limits activities such as concentrating, reading, thinking, etc., and then determine, with their input, what accommodations would mitigate the impact of the condition,” Magler said.

The number of students who are determined not to be eligible for accommodations is small, especially after the ADA broadened the definition of disability in 2008.

Magler credited the spike in cases to improvements in the public image of and attention to mental health. She said people have more confidence to come forward without the threat of stigma.

“Mental health diagnoses are increasing and stigma is decreasing,” Magler said. “This perhaps is not necessarily a case of over-diagnosis, but an indication that more students are seeking help from campus and feel safe, secure and free from stigma in doing so.”

An initiative under the National Alliance Against Mental Illness recently distributed their 3,000th green bandana, which signifies standing in solidarity with mental health. Individuals displaying these bandanas also carry resource cards that have information about where to get help on campus.

“It really does an effective job of getting rid of the stigma associated with mental illness and raises awareness on campus,” said Colin Bass, director of the Bandana Project and NAMI-UW’s Outreach Coordinator. “The bandana is more of a peer-to-peer way to get the resources out there.”

Though applauding UHS, Bass said there is room for improvement.

“In general, I think more campuses should put a greater emphasis on mental health care, with more funding, infrastructure and resources to departments that handle it,” Bass said.

Progress is underway, as last May, the Center embarked on a new strategic planning path. They are launching a new electronic accommodation and case management system to eliminate the need for VISAs. He instead focuses on an electronic Faculty Notification Letter which replaces the same accommodations.

The Center works around the tagline “Forward in access,” which conveys an understanding that accessibility to mental health care can be different for different people.

“The accessibility [to care] on our campus community is a shared responsibility that requires everyone’s participation,” Magler said.

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