This semester, the University of Wisconsin has lost two students to suicide. Nothing I can say will fully express how tragic this has been for their families and friends.
These are not isolated incidents. UW has higher suicide rates than most other Big Ten universities. That is why it’s extremely important that as a community we take this issue seriously and find ways to prevent suicide and save lives.
First, I want to make it clear there are people at this university working tirelessly to provide counseling for students who are going through hard times. The administration and University Health Services are aware of the issue and already offer mental health services. Dean of Students Lori Berquam, Associated Students of Madison and UHS have been discussing ways in which the university can find students who are struggling with depression and give them the support they need. They recognize there are ways in which the university can do more to help struggling students.
As a support system for students dealing with anxiety, chemical dependence, depression and other mental illnesses, UHS mental health services are essential. As the university looks for ways to identify and help students in crisis, investigating ways in which mental health services can be improved is a top priority. The UW needs mental health services that students feel comfortable accessing and which provide effective treatment. However, questions have been raised as to how accessible and how effective these services are at present.
At the moment, UHS is not the most welcoming place for a student with mental health concerns. It is not uncommon to spend extended periods of time on hold when calling to set up an appointment or reading magazines in a waiting room, and UHS has received complaints about incompetent receptionists. The MyUHS online patient portal, used for scheduling appointments and sending confidential messages, can make health care feel rather lifeless. In general, the UHS health care management infrastructure tends to feel cold and bureaucratic – rather than a safe, inviting place where students with mental health concerns can seek help.
More concerning, however, are a number of complaints from last year alleging unprofessional conduct on the part of UHS staff. Former Badger Herald reporter Andrew Averill investigated UHS student complaints and found that one patient said that a staff member called them “lazy, an alcoholic and irritable” when they went to UHS for help in getting depression medication. Another patient claimed a UHS staff member discouraged them from seeking short-term counseling services, saying getting help when they are having a hard time “won’t change that fact that [they] can’t deal with [their] issues in crisis.”
In light of the heightened relevance of mental health on campus, and given the serious consequences of dealing with it irresponsibly, this behavior is unacceptable for a UHS staff member. If UHS is serious about confronting concerns about mental health, there has to be greater degrees of oversight and accountability in the treatment it is providing. Considering too few of those suffering from mental illness seek help, and those who do seek help are often in an emotionally unstable state, it is indefensible that a health care professional would talk to them in such a derogatory way. When students seek out mental health counseling, the UW administration and UHS need to ensure they receive effective treatment.
UHS mental health services aren’t broken – they are a vital resource for students dealing with anxiety, chemical dependence, depression or other mental health concerns who are in need of counseling and support. However, it is important to recognize there are areas in which UW must improve the mental health services it offers.
If you or anyone you know are concerned about mental health, UHS can help – call 608-265-5600 to set up an appointment.
Charles Godfrey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior majoring in physics and math.