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Monday, June 24, 2024

An 'academic rat race': How students navigate the mental health maze at UW-Madison

Amid high rates of depression nationwide, UW-Madison students try to navigate the many resources campus has to offer.

For many, Madison is the nation’s best college town. But for some of the over 50,000 students on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s campus, every day is a struggle. 

With depression rates among U.S. students higher than ever, many are struggling behind the scenes, National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) President Katherine Zimmerman told The Daily Cardinal.

“There's definitely a mental health crisis among college students,” Zimmerman said. “I think if there were more proactive approaches to addressing things like mild depression or anxiety for students, we would have more effective ways in supporting students on campus.”

UW-Madison student Zoe Kung, who is diagnosed with depression, said these pressures feel like a “rat race.” Within an academically competitive institution, some classes — like the ones Kung takes — are set up so only the top 25% of students get an A. 

“That makes it so depressing,” Kung said. “How do we adjust to now being at the bottom of the pack and having to work super hard to see any results?”

Mild depression caused by the drastic changes of college is unique yet often not addressed by UW-Madison, according to Kung and Zimmerman. 

To combat these changes, Zimmerman recommended joining clubs to find smaller communities on campus.  

“Something that has always struck me about taking care of yourself is being a part of something and feeling like you are part of a community,” Zimmerman said. “Students who are struggling with something come to one meeting and they feel like they are heard or as though they have a place on campus.”

Receiving accommodations

UW-Madison offers resources such as the McBurney Disability Center where 2,034 students used the center for a psychological disability in the 2022-23 academic year. Still, other students who identify as having a disability are not registered through the center.

Depression has always been an issue on college campuses, but the general anxiety surrounding communication has gone up in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, University Health Services (UHS) mental health provider Kathy Wierzchowski told the Cardinal.

The McBurney report has no category specifically for depression, but McBurney categorizes it as a psychological disability. This means students with depression can still utilize McBurney, Magler said.

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Magler said there are students diagnosed with depression that have a disability, and students just diagnosed with depression — all are able to receive accommodations.

“We work with each student on an individual basis to understand their experience and whether or not they are eligible for accommodations based on disability,” Magler said.

Additionally, people with mild and severe depression receive different accommodations, according to Zimmerman.

“Depression can be a mild depression where you are still able to get out of bed, go to your classes,”Zimmerman said. “There is severe depression, where you can’t get out of bed, you can’t even shower or brush your teeth, and you struggle a lot with executive dysfunction and motivation.”

Kung — who does not use McBurney — said some of the accommodations McBurney offers don’t necessarily fit her needs. .

“The majority of what is advertised about McBurney is a test time and a half, which is great for some people, but I don't need that, I’m just sad,” she said.

She’s heard of people who get offered flexibility with deadlines and attendance “which would be really nice for someone in my situation,” Kung said.

There are some misunderstandings about accommodations between students and McBurney, Zimmerman said. Students with severe depression may have their needs being diminished if everyone receives accommodations, Zimmerman said.

This misunderstanding comes down to a lack of education surrounding mental health and depression, which is why the university should inform students on ways to cope with mild depression and not automatically seek resourcing, Zimmerman said. 

Utilizing therapy

UHS counseling services are also helpful for students who are first seeking help, according to Kung and Zimmerman, but scheduling appointments can be difficult.

“The whole therapy situation is really overburdened,” Kung said. “The thing is they are supposed to give you around a session a month, but it can be really hard to actually get in because of finals and school.”

One-on one-therapy is good for addressing issues students have and is a massive first step for many students, Wierzchowski said. And group therapy can help individuals actively work through their concerns in order to further treat depression.

UHS provides other forms of counseling, including daily Let’s Talk sessions and partnerships with Uwill and Togetherall for students.

During Kung’s first consultation with UHS, known as an Access Appointment, it felt like “going down a checklist,” she said.

UW-Madison Associate Director of Marketing and Health Communication Sarah Clifford Glapa said specialists cover many topics in Access Appointments. 

“The goal is to make the Access Appointment a collaborative experience to best tailor each student’s care,” Glapa said.

Kung recommended finding outside therapy as a viable alternative.

“If you were to get therapy outside of UHS you would get about the same care and probably a better therapist,” Kung said. “You would still get that session a month just with a better therapist.”

UW-Madison’s Mental Health Student Advisory Board helps bring out student voices and ensure the university is meeting the needs of the student community. The university is continuously expanding their service offerings to better support students, Glapa said.

Student support and community resources are available via University Health Services’ crisis line at (608) 265-5600, option 9.

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