Mental health services on college campuses look different this year, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing counseling to be held virtually while college students’ mental health worsens.

Students are very familiar with the use of technology and are eager to use it to improve their mental health, according to an APA Caucus on College Mental Health and Telepsychiatry.

University of Wisconsin Director of Mental Health Services Sarah Nolan said the UW mental health services successfully moved all of their traditional options online.

“Individual, group and couples therapy all seem to work well virtually,” Nolan said. “We also started an Instagram account because we know we have to reach more people virtually and we’re trying to upgrade our web presence so folks can find out about the services we are offering.”

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists young adults as one of the specific populations that mental health conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic are disproportionately affecting.

UW freshman and participant in UW’s mental health services Rose Heaney said she has had a great experience with the virtual consultation.

I called to make an appointment with them, set up an appointment for a consultation, did the consultation and the lady was really nice,” Heaney said. “She seemed really dedicated.”

According to the APA, state licensure restrictions and malpractice limitations hamper the ability to treat students who are out-of-state.

But, Nolan said UW’s mental health division found ways around these limitations.

“We have created services that aren’t formal clinical services, such as our virtual processing spaces and Let’s Talk consultations,” Nolan said. “These allow for people who are out of state or out of the country to be able to access some of our services.”

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Other mental health services at UW available to students right now include a crisis line, Thrive Workshops, more information about COVID-19 and group therapy.

Nolan and Heaney both addressed the added stress brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, saying it exacerbates preexisting anxiety in teens.

In response to these anxieties, UHS created the Badger Virtual Care Package which offers mental health services, ways to connect with other students struggling with COVID-19, relaxation and entertainment, academic support and tips on rest, exercise and nutrition.

According to Nolan, other factors are adding to stress for students as well. 

“The demand has been high for a long time and that hasn’t changed, but people have new things to struggle with now,” Nolan said. “The pandemic, increased awareness of social injustice, this year being an election year all contribute.”

According to a study by the Student Experience in the Research University, the prevalence of major depressive disorders among graduate and professional students is currently two times higher than in 2019 and the prevalence of generalized anxiety disorder is 1.5 times higher than in 2019.

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UW mental health services provides brief individual treatment for mental health concerns, but referrals to a provider in the Madison area can be made if needed, according to the UHS website.

Heaney said this “brief individual treatment” deterred her from making more appointments.

“I learned you can only have a certain amount of appointments per semester and I wanted to save them until my mental health was worse off,” Heaney said.

According to the UHS website, most students attend between one and four 50 minute sessions. But for students like Heaney, this is not enough.

Heaney said she thinks the UW mental health services should be more accessible. 

“It can be really intimidating for students to go to therapy for the first time,” Heaney said. “I think they should really work on making sure students know utilizing UHS is a good first step in anyone’s mental health journey.”

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Students at UW can schedule an Access Appointment on their MyUHS accounts. Services are free and confidential to any enrolled UW student, according to the UW mental health website.

Nolan said UHS is always evolving their services to make them more accessible to students.

“We are always updating and trying to learn and make this easier,” Nolan said. “We don’t know when this is going to be over, so we’re trying to make it as strong a service option as possible for students.”