With increasing demand during the winter season, CAPS challenged with keeping up with student counseling

Thursday, January 24, 2019 - 5:34pm

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder Buy this photo
Michelle Fan

While the University of Michigan’s Counseling and Psychological Services provides a multitude of resources for students on campus, some students, like Engineering senior Anna Learis, still bring up the issue of long wait times for appointments.

Learis is the co-founder and editor in chief of Mentality Magazine, which aims to increase discussion about mental health by providing a platform for students to share their mental health experiences through writing. Learis said the issue of long wait times can be detrimental for people who need help immediately, but acknowledged that this problem has been alleviated slightly within the College of Engineering.

“If someone’s having an issue, they want to talk now, not in two and a half weeks,” Learis said. “So I think until they get more rotating counselors, that’s a major issue. And fortunately, the College of Engineering has two embedded CAPS counselors, so a lot of my Engineering friends have said that they’ve seen improvements in scheduling times since it’s happened, but I think that’s the exception.”

According to James Dolan, the associate director of clinical services at CAPS, CAPS is on track to see about 2,500 students this semester, continuing a trend of substantial increases each semester for the past several years. However, the CAPS staff is at full capacity with the budget they have, so the possibility of increasing the number of counselors and available appointments is not likely, Dolan said.

“We are fully staffed for the funding that we have,” Dolan said on the possibilities of increasing the number of counselors and appointments provided. “It is a challenge, and I’ll be honest, as the clinical director, it’s very challenging right now to meet the needs of all the students who come to CAPS.”

LSA senior Jordan Lazarus is the executive director of Wolverine Support Network, an organization sponsored by CAPS offering weekly peer-facilitated support groups as well as bi-weekly community events. Though he too has heard of the long wait periods for CAPS appointments, Lazarus said they are still able to provide far more resources than other colleges he has worked with through WSN.

“Like everything else, there’s a finite amount of resources and I wish there was more,” Lazarus said. “I don’t run CAPS, but they exist to serve students. And I know that, compared to a lot of campuses that I do interface with, CAPS here is really 50 steps ahead. But yeah, there are wait times, and it is a problem.”

On long wait lists, Dolan emphasized initial consultations are usually within a few days and CAPS provides a counselor on duty every day for walk-in meetings.

“Now that is a first-come, first-serve service, so sometimes students might have to wait to see the counselor on duty, but we have counselors on duty to see someone every day,” Dolan said. “The wait times might come in later on, when people are actually engaged in counseling, because we have so many students that are interested in individual counseling. Again, we do our best to see students right away, but there might be some waits in terms of actually engaging with the counselor.”

Exacerbating the problem, this time of year is especially busy, according to Oakland Press’ interview with Vicki Hays, senior associate director of CAPS. Hays said in the winter season, it’s more common for students to be afflicted with seasonal affective disorder.

SAD is a mood disorder causing depression to occur at the same time every year. While most people experiencing SAD feel the effects from late fall to the end of winter, in a rarer form, people can experience SAD from late spring to early fall.

Dolan said although there may be an increase in students with SAD during the winter months, CAPS does not keep track of SAD-specific changes.

“I can tell you that about 22 percent of our students report depression as their primary presenting concern,” Dolan said. “But we really don’t differentiate between types of depression.”

Dolan also stressed the importance of understanding the difference between when someone may have depression and when the weather is just affecting their mood.

“It’s important for people to understand there’s a difference between the weather just kind of affecting your mood and the normal things we feel as human beings when the season changes, versus when something becomes depression, which is a more serious matter,” he said. “It’s pretty normal for people to want to stay in bed a little more, or to raise carbohydrate foods and things like that. But it’s when it starts to interfere with your life, like you can’t get out of bed or you stop attending events or you don’t go to classes, that’s when depression can be a real problem.”

Learis echoed this idea, noting she has noticed some of her friends suffering more from actual clinical depression during the winter, while some may just be feeling more down.

“I have quite a few friends or acquaintances with things that are more along the lines of clinical depression, and obviously that gets worse,” Learis said. “But also with people who usually don’t have any mental health issues, when it’s this cold you don’t go outside, you’re not socializing, you know, you stay in bed all day. And although that’s fun every now and then, you just get in such a slump and especially in Michigan I think it’s hard for students to get out of that slump.”

In the past, CAPS has established Wellness Zonesmost recently on North Campus in collaboration with the Engineering Student Government. Wellness Zones come equipped with massage chairs, yoga mats with meditation videos and artificial full spectrum light therapy lamps, which are used to alleviate SAD. The Wellness Zone for Central Campus has been temporarily closed and put into storage because of construction on the Michigan Union, but is slated to return in the winter 2020 semester.

For those struggling with SAD or feeling the effects of the cold on their mental health, Learis recommended the sun lamps for light therapy and reaching out to friends to leave the house more often during the winter.

“One of our writers tried (light therapy lamps) out for two weeks and told us it changed her mood completely,” Learis said. “And then I tried it out and was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this works.’ And going along those lines, I think one thing that comes up a lot when I talk to people about seasonal affective disorder is a lot of it kind of all rotates back to cutting yourself off socially … so another thing is reaching out to friends and making plans that force you to leave the house to still engage.”

Learis also recognized the improvements that have been made in student resources when it comes to mental health and highlighted the growth in student organizations advocating for mental health.

“I think one thing that — and I think this might also be because I’ve gotten more involved with the mental health community over my time — but I see so many organizations doing such great work,” she said. “That goes for like, from CAPS in Action to CSG’s Mental Health Taskforce to Mentality Magazine. So I feel like the conversation is more frequent about mental health, even if we aren’t necessarily getting more resources. More people know they can say, ‘I’m not having a good mental health day.’”

For emergencies, Learis recommended the CAPS 24-hour hotline as well as the University’s Psychiatric Emergency Services’ hotline. Finding a shared experience with someone else, Lazarus says, could make all the difference in getting better.

“Talk about it,” he said. “Everyone — seriously, everyone — is going through something. And I believe from a peer support side, just knowing that there’s someone who you can relate to and empathize with, you know like, ‘We both get SAD in the winter.’ Just to feel that sense of connection and shared humanity is really powerful, and can really, really help.”