My whole life I’ve struggled with mental health.
As a child, sometimes I would start feeling really sad and I wouldn’t know why.
When I was about 8 years old, my parents got me a royal blue iPod Nano. It had my Dad’s music library — mostly dad rock and some stuff from the 90s.
Among the selection was U2’s 1988 hybrid live/studio album Rattle and Hum. The album’s final song, a ballad called “All I Want Is You,” is about love, heartbreak and broken promises, things you don’t typically have much real experience with when you’re 8. All I really understood about this ballad was that it was tragic.
When I used to dip into this unexplainable sad place, I would listen to it on repeat. I can vividly remember sitting on a bus to summer camp, alone, isolated from my friends, feeling off and disconnected from myself and those around me — not knowing why but just wanting to be alone.
“All I Want Is You” provided me with catharsis and a way to explore, feel and embrace this darker side of myself that as a child I didn’t understand, but looking back, I needed it greatly. When I wanted to be alone, the song gave me a place to hide and feel what I needed to feel; it gave me “a river in a time of dryness, a harbor in the tempest.”
As I got older, I started to have anxiety. Sometimes it was crippling; obsessive. In high school, there was one girl in particular who, after she rejected me for my best friend at the time, made walking the halls of school a terrifying experience. I was always panicked, constantly trying to make it to my next class as fast as I could so that I wouldn’t pass her by chance.
Eventually, it got to the point where it constantly felt like there was a massive pit in my stomach. It was the kind you get before a big performance or test, but I felt it almost every day.
At the end of my sophomore year of high school, I got into a big fight with my mom over something probably very stupid, and in the heat of the argument, she suggested I go see a therapist.
And to spite her, I did.
At my first session, I was cautious. I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to go to another appointment, but I actually ended up liking it. It was just a conversation with someone who made you feel understood and offered their advice. It was like having a friend, the only difference being that you paid them.
So I kept going for almost two years.
And it was a godsend. High school was a tough time for me, as I’m sure it was for many others, but in the good times and the bad, my therapist was there for me and helped me manage my mental health. She also helped me through some of the lowest moments of my life. There were times I was so depressed that those once-a-week sessions were really all I looked forward to.
Eventually though, it came time for me to leave the nest. I went to college and stopped seeing my therapist, believing that it was time for me to venture forth on my own — a conviction that my therapist agreed with. I had improved my mental health, bettered myself.
But from time to time, I still struggle. I still go to that sad place. Earlier this year I reached back out to my therapist. I wanted to meet with her again, but on a more irregular basis. She told me that because of the huge increase in demand for therapy onset by the pandemic, she was overbooked and couldn’t see me, and advised me to contact the University of Michigan’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).
So I did.
For context, the CAPS process starts with a mental health history questionnaire, and then you schedule an initial consultation. It took me two weeks to get an initial consultation, which is kind of a repeat of the questionnaire. It really was just an appointment where someone asks you questions about your history with mental health and therapy to get a read on how urgently you need to be seen. They ask you if you have a history of violence, self-harm, substance abuse, etc.
During this consultation, they inform you that CAPS is not really therapy, as students attend an average of only 3.5 sessions and usually do not go to more than five. It’s also not in person because of the pandemic; it’s conducted over the phone — you can’t do Zoom or FaceTime either. With this virtual form of counseling, the multitude of benefits from face-to-face communication are lost.
If you’re still interested at this point, they’ll inform you that they can schedule an appointment for you but the wait time could be between three and six weeks, depending on availability. I was still interested, thinking that the unexplained sadness I had been feeling might resurface at that time and that a session would be helpful.
About a month later, I had my appointment, coincidentally being in that sad place again. The therapist I was assigned to spent the first 15 minutes of the call talking to me about what they could offer me.
It was a strange and uncomfortable experience. There was very little personal connection involved and the therapist made it seem like they didn’t want me to open up; it was almost as if they were trying to convince me to seek counseling elsewhere.
I did, however, open up about my problems. After more than a month of waiting I wasn’t going to just hang up the phone. I regaled them with details about finals and some social drama involving a friend of mine with whom I was having a conflict. At one point, I mentioned I wanted my friend to go away. The therapist cut me off and started interrogating me about whether or not I intended to kill my friend. It was quite bizarre. It felt like they were looking to create issues that didn’t exist, especially when I had indicated in the questionnaire that I was just looking for someone to talk to, not crisis counseling.
After that, I felt too uncomfortable to continue opening up. I asked the therapist to give me some resources that could help me find a therapist in Ann Arbor and I ended the session. I didn’t schedule another appointment.
As someone who has experience with good therapy, it seems to me that CAPS kind of sucks. It’s really only there to help a small percentage of people with severe mental health issues that need crisis counseling. While this service is undeniably important, I doubt it provides the counseling necessary due to its massive wait times. After six weeks, crisis counseling is too little too late.
I know that the kind of therapy I had in high school was a privilege, but it shouldn’t be, and especially not at the University of Michigan, an institution with seemingly unlimited financial resources. I believe everyone can benefit from it, even those who aren’t necessarily struggling. Studies have found that 21.6% of college students said depression impacted their studies and 50% of college students reported their mental health to be below average or poor. Having someone who you can communicate all of your deep dark secrets and feelings to, and the catharsis that comes from that, is incredibly healthy.
Considering that the highest incidence of mental illness occurs in individuals between 18 and 24 years old, a period of time that many people spend in college, the kind of therapy I had in high school — the “I’m just looking for someone to talk to” kind — needs to be available at the University.
While I am fortunate enough to be able to have an outside therapist in Ann Arbor if I wanted one, there are many students that rely on University-provided resources. If we want to live up to the claim of being the “Leaders and the Best,” we need actual comprehensive counseling and psychological services — not a crappy crisis hotline with a month-long wait.
Jared Dougall is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com