Mental health has been a topic of campus conversation for months, as the challenges of COVID-19 and remote learning affect UW-Madison students.
During the 2018-19 fiscal year, before the pandemic, Mental Health Services at University Health Services saw 6,644 unique patients, marking a fourteen-percent increase in client visits over the previous year, according to a UHS report. Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to nationally exacerbate issues relating to mental health and the university has sought to support students through events and messaging but many are still grappling.
First-year student Peyton Zibell — like many students as of late — is struggling with her mental health.
“Learning how to transition to online school has been a huge challenge,” said Zibell. “I feel like because we’re all online it’s really hard for me to have the motivation to go and get the help I need.”
Campbell Stowell, another first-year student, reiterated these worries.
“My depression and anxiety are at their peak,” said Stowell, describing how the simplest of tasks such as attending a virtual class or finding a Zoom link feel “overwhelming most days.”
“I am constantly stressed with the lack of breaks and navigating online school,” Stowell said. “I am more worried about my mental health than getting COVID-19.”
An MHS counselor at UHS — who Stowell said is “very supportive” — has helped her find a therapist in the Madison area; yet, Stowellremains frustrated with UW’s decision to provide only a few wellness days, one of which was Saturday, March 27 while the others are Friday, April 2 and Saturday, April 3, in place of a Spring Break. The breaks all take place on Fridays or Saturdays, days that many students do not have class.
“Quite frankly, I think that the one day is a joke and that [the university] is putting in the least amount of effort to pretend that they care about the student body,” said Stowell, referencing the UW Faculty Senate’s decision.
UHS Mental Health Services director to students: “I care”
Director of Mental Health Services at UHS Dr. Sarah Nolan maintains that the university and UHS are committed to ensuring that students have access to mental health care. Emphasizing that as students struggle with the circumstances of COVID-19, online schooling and cope with global events such as the Atlanta shooting targeting Asian Americans earlier this month, Nolan stated that MHS’s ultimate goal is to support students and their mental health.
“If [students] have experiences that prevent them from seeking our services, I want to know about it,” said Nolan. “I want students to feel like there is something at MHS and UHS that can help them through this time.”
Last fall, according to Nolan, MHS experienced a drop in student usage but has since “bounced back” to pre-pandemic levels, said Nolan, also mentioning that there has not been an increase in demand for mental health services at UW-Madison when compared to pre-COVID times.
“I don’t think that means that people aren’t having a harder time,” pointed out Nolan, noting that she is unsure why MHS is not seeing “a major jump” in students seeking services.
“As we look forward, we are very mindful of the fact that, historically, mental health on college campuses has continued to need more and more support,” Nolan said, highlighting that more students may seek services in the coming months. “So, that’s definitely going to be the case moving forward.”
Yet, students are only offered ten individual/couples counseling sessions in a twelve-month period. Other MHS services do not have specific usage limits.
Although MHS cannot see people face to face due to the pandemic, Nolan stresses the importance of access to mental health services — underscoring that there are always ways in which to rethink and increase accessibility.
A second-year student, who asked to be left anonymous, has struggled with securing an appointment at MHS. They had a consultation call — for an appointment established to determine what type of services a patient needs — last week and heard back about setting up a counseling appointment but was unable to attend and has not heard from UHS since.
According to this student, available appointments with an actual therapist are “very limited” and that the open appointments are not until the end of the semester which is not “helpful to students struggling now.”
Nolan upholds that MHS is actively seeking to accommodate students seeking mental health services. Every morning, MHS staff members — including Nolan — look to see how many appointments are available over the next couple of weeks and assess whether or not they need to add more slots, said Nolan.
“We are always shifting things and reallocating things to make sure that we have appointments available,” asserted Nolan. “But I do think that students are busy — especially UW-Madison students — so sometimes I think it is hard for students’ schedules to align with the appointments that we have available.”
“I do think students feel there is nothing available and that’s obviously a problem,” continued Nolan. “Even if we do have appointments available, I think we always need to be offering more appointments … that is certainly on my mind.”
Virtual services at UHS range from individual, group and couples counseling to behavioral health appointments, Let’s Talk consultations and processing spaces, said Nolan. UHS also checks in with students that have tested positive for COVID-19 or that have been in contact with someone who has tested positive, offering them chances to call MHS for support while in quarantine or isolation.
“People are very isolated and I think there is a lot of anxiety in the world about the unpredictability of what is happening with the pandemic,” Nolan said. “And for college students, there is a lot of fear around the implications for their futures.”
According to Nolan, symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress, grief and loss are common among UW students right now.
“There has been a lot of non-traditional grief over the last year,” said Nolan, highlighting that this has led to an unfamiliar struggle for many, including feelings of loss associated with the effects of the pandemic such as “losing out on your freshman year of college” and other experiences.
Ultimately, Nolan understands that seeking mental health care can be “challenging” and that it is “easy to get discouraged,” but hopes students know that both she and MHS are committed to ensuring they receive quality mental health care.
“Our whole mission is to serve [students] and to make sure that they successfully get through their experience at UW,” emphasized Nolan. “I want students to feel like there is something at MHS and UHS that can help them get through this time.”
Students look forward but worries remain
Increased vaccine accessibility as well as Chancellor Rebecca Blank’s decision to proceed with in-person classes next fall has sparked some relief among students like Zibell and Stowell, but concerns about mental health are still on their minds. While Zibell highlighted her optimism about the future and hopes for a better routine, Stowell is still skeptical about the UW administration and what they will do.
“My hopes for next semester are that UW takes its students seriously,” stressed Stowell.
Students seeking university mental health resources can find them here.