“People are climbing the walls, pulling their hair out because of how isolated they feel — how isolated they actually are,” said Clinical Psychologist Dr. Michael Mazius.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison rolled out their SmartRestart plan in early August, ensuring students it was safe for a full return to campus this fall. However, many students feel the University neglected to institute reliable mental health treatment plans for their students during these uncertain times.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, over 40 percent of adults are struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues, a significant increase from the past years, according to a study done by the Center for Disease Control. Of that number, over 30 percent of adults are currently showing symptoms of anxiety.
Dr. Mazius named anxiety as the silent symptom of COVID-19, as many institutions, specifically universities, have not prioritized mental health when rolling out return to campus plans for their students.
“Anxiety is one of the natural outcomes of something like coronavirus, ” Dr. Mazius said. “It comes from too much social isolation. I believe that virtual communication does not replace physical interactions. The virus has forced people to adjust to a new normal remarkably quickly.”
People are struggling with sleep, mood issues, anxiety and depression; and in general people are thinking more negatively, according to Dr. Mazius.
An anonymous sophomore described the University’s plan to bring students back to campus as “flawed” in many ways, but most notably in their lack of willingness to address the mental health crisis it will cause.
“Just school being online in general had a big impact [on my mental health],” the anonymous student said. “Especially with the most recent updates when we were in that two week span where everything shifted online, I would say that took a toll ”
The university has always offered a number of services for mental health to their students. The Associated Students of Madison (ASM) have made a push in the last few years to bring mental health to the forefront of the administration’s attention.
“There's a large student concern about long-term structural student engagement on mental health, and a lot of people shared the same sentiment,” said former ASM chair Jordan Pasbrig in a previous interview. “We don't know exactly what this should look like, but we do think there should be something [with] more consistent communication and engagement with students.”
In the wake of COVID-19, Mental Health Services have been pushed to the back-burner, even though the majority of mental health professionals believe that mental health is at an all-time low in young adults.
Chancellor Rebecca Blank said that all faculty members were sent multiple emails with guidance on how to address mental health this semester. However, there was no enforcement or incentive for employees to actually read the emails.
“Of course, our residence hall advisors all had that information. They're trained in that. We try to get that information out to faculty. I think we've sent it around two or three times already this semester,” Blank said. But she questioned, “now, does every faculty member every time read through that and do it?”
Access Appointments are the first step to seeking services at University Health Services, but it takes time for them to become available. The typical timeframe for that initial appointment is a two week wait for a meeting with an “Access Specialist.
The university continues to employ a mere 13 mental health professionals for over 40,000 students.
During the Access Appointment, students talk with an Access Specialist who will listen to concerns, ask questions about a student’s symptoms, experiences and resources, and connect them with the services they need — either on or off-campus. During these meetings, students can request mental health providers with specific identities, background or training.
The process has not been altered to react to the increase in need during the pandemic. University Health Services recommends students set up appointments online instead of calling, and schedule appointments for over the phone instead of in-person.
“We recognize this is a tough time for many, to hold the anxieties and stressors associated with this pandemic, while also balancing roles of students, employees, and family members. MHS will continue to support you virtually. All services are remote at this time,” Mental Health Services website states.
The Administrative Role
A multitude of students have expressed frustrations with the lack of communication between administration and the student body, leading to unnecessary anxieties that could easily be avoided.
“My professors seem ready to communicate with students, but in the overall sense of the university communication, I feel like they could be doing a lot more,” the anonymous student said. “The two weeks of quarantine that just happened I felt was really late notice, especially for students living in Sellery and Witte; they basically had a few hours-notices that they were going to be locked in their dorms for a few weeks.”
When Chancellor Rebecca Blank was asked on Tuesday about the administration's role in ensuring the mental safety of her students, she directed students to use applications in lieu of psychotherapy.
“There are certain types of calming apps that we asked [students] to use and to see if, ‘my levels of anxiety went down’, that's sometimes quite helpful,” Blank said.
Telehealth is an adequate alternative to receiving psychological treatment in person, according to Dr. Mazius. Chancellor Blank also expressed her excitement over the fact that more students will be able to receive help in the new era of telehealth.
However, wait times to see a mental health professional have not decreased since telehealth appointments were introduced by the university. The typical wait time for an access appointment remains approximately two weeks, leading to the question if more individuals have been helped at all.
“We have done everything we can to support the students who are in isolation and who are ill,” Blank said.