While students often consider University of Michigan Counseling and Psychological Services the center for mental health services on campus, there are an assortment of resources on campus that often fulfills student needs outside of traditional therapy, such as the University Health System and student organizations.
The University is currently attempting to make CAPS more accessible in light of increasing demand from students and long wait times. The service, which provides counseling to individuals and groups of students as well as community outreach programs, has experienced an average 4 percent annual increase in student demand since 2010 and sees an average of 4,000 students per school year.
However, CAPS Director Todd Sevig said students often only use it as an entry point into the system, and may receive follow-up or more specialized treatment elsewhere.
“Most people start at CAPS, and most people are treated at CAPS,” he said. “Then we work to create the spokes to the other resources on campus to kind of complete the wheel, if you will.”
Though having various campus mental health resources may seem confusing to students, Sevig said he likes to emphasize different approaches, noting many students don’t need traditional counseling.
“We all need to pay attention to mental health, but not all of us need all of the services that the campus offers,” he said. “What we try to do is help the student wherever they come in.”
Alternatives to CAPS
UHS houses three main divisions of mental health services: the Department of Psychiatry for traditional diagnoses and medication, Wolverine Wellness for an approach centered on overall wellbeing and Care Management for exploration of treatment options inside and outside of UHS.
The UHS psychiatrists diagnose and treat students as well as faculty, staff and alumni. CAPS often refers students to UHS for these more specialized or long-term services because CAPS primarily provides short-term counseling, said Diana Parrish, a mental health care manager with UHS.
“I think something that’s really important for students to understand is CAPS is only able to offer short-term support, and that’s the standard across all college counseling centers,” Parrish said. “If a student has been depressed for years, for example, or is at a point where they haven’t gotten out of bed in months, that indicates that something really serious is happening and they’re probably going to need more than a handful of sessions to feel better. If that’s the case, then going to CAPS can still be a great entry point because they help you get connected to more long-term services, but you could just as easily walk into UHS and skip that step if you don’t think it’s going to be right for you.”
Joy Pehlke, a health educator with Wolverine Wellness and the coordinator of the wellness coaching program, said students tend to be unaware of Wolverine Wellness compared to CAPS and other UHS services. Wolverine Wellness is a section of UHS that promotes wellbeing in students through trained wellness coaches that provide a space to talk about issues such as stress, alcohol use and body image.
Pehlke said in addition to alcohol screenings and mental health outreach, Wolverine Wellness also offers wellness coaching, which involves two sessions with a staff member to assess personal goals and methods for achieving those goals. The coaching involves a tactic called “motivational interviewing,” which relies on the student’s input as much as the facilitator’s.
She said the two-year-old program for students is fairly unique, with Ohio State University housing the only other similar program she is aware of.
“With most behavior change, most people don’t need as much information as they need to find their own motivation to do it,” Pehlke said. “A lot of people stir in ambivalence about making any sort of changes, so wellness coaching is another way to work through it.”
However, she noted the program emphasizes facilitators are not therapists, and facilitators often refer students to CAPS when either mental health screenings or conversations with the student indicate that factors such as stress are inhibiting the student in daily life.
Parrish also does not diagnose students because she is not a therapist. As a care manager, she talks to students about mental health issues and assists in developing a treatment plan to get better connected with resources and to follow up on specific issues.
Pehlke said overall, she was surprised by the number of students who choose to attend wellness coaching and therapy concurrently.
“Most students have said that they find they benefit from both because they’re different and they take different approaches,” Pehlke said.
Along with University efforts, there are also student-led programs such as the Wolverine Support Network, an initiative sponsored by CAPS that provides peer-led support groups.
LSA junior Max Rothman, director of WSN program development, said the organization aims to destigmatize mental health through facilitating open conversation among students.
“Students are willing to come to these groups and open up, and be willing to be vulnerable in these situations and feel comfortable sharing to a group of students that they really don’t know that well,” he said. “I think it’s just a testament to the work that we’re doing, that the stigma really is starting to break down.”
WSN currently has 250 members placed in 19 groups as well as a group for “drop-ins,” with each group facilitated by two student leaders. These leaders are trained by CAPS and other mental health services on campus, and meet weekly with the other leaders and a CAPS liaison to further their learning.
Rothman said though leaders are well-equipped to handle most situations that arise in groups, they often recommend students also make an appointment with CAPS if the student appears to need additional help.
“We like to say that our groups are therapeutic, not therapy,” he said. “It’s a way to just get whatever’s on your mind off your chest and talk about it with some peers.”
LSA senior Nayla Sater, director of leader development, said WSN continues to grow every semester, which she views as a testament to the efforts of group facilitators.
“This semester has honestly been remarkable, the turnout,” she said.
She added she believed the organization is unlike any other on campus.
“These groups are such a big part for them, really help them move along and know that they are supported and loved by someone on this campus,” Sater said.
Complicated or comforting?
Parrish said though there are ways mental health services could still improve at the University, she feels the system continues to improve from year to year, especially among student efforts to emphasize the importance of mental health on campus.
“I think students have done an excellent job showing that they care about this, showing up to Regents meetings, talking to the president at fireside chats, and making it clear that this is important,” she said. “And I think that administration is responding and staff is responding. It’s certainly going to be a long game type of situation. I definitely think we’re on the way.”
However, she noted that the University’s multifaceted approach to mental health can also feel complicated and confusing to students, and there is still room for improvement.
“I think that everyone who works in Student Life here is very well aware that the fact that we are all in separate units, in separate buildings, makes things complicated and hard to work together at times to give students the best support,” she said.
She said UHS and CAPS continue a weekly meeting with her to improve communication to create an increasingly cohesive system, such as the other Wolverine Wellness care manager meeting and a CAPS care manager to discuss methods for CAPS and UHS to cooperate as a unit.
“All of that is certainly improving, and as that continues it’s going to make a big difference in terms of students feeling shuffled around and confused about where they sit in the system,” Parrish said.
Sevig noted some students have described the University mental health services system as confusing, but said CAPS and other departments on campus continue to provide additional information to help clarify the system, citing their website and new smartphone app as examples.
“No matter where a person starts, if another place would be better, that usually does come up,” he said. “We’ve tried to, as a system, be clearer over the years, with websites, materials, and then when we go out and talk with student groups or faculty groups who in turn talk with students.”
Overall, Pehlke said she believed creating a variety of services and opportunities surrounding mental health was vital for campus-wide wellness.
“We have to have these other options for students because (mental health) is such a large, complex thing,” Pehlke said. “I think as much as we can sort of work collaboratively to sort of have more of a net of ways to catch students, to help them, for me that’s sort of more of an advantage than having a more siloed thing.”