Students struggle to find mental health support on campus

Tuesday, January 14, 2020 - 9:05pm

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Design by Lizzy Rueppel

This is the first installment of a three-part series investigating student mental health at the University of Michigan. The Daily interviewed students on campus and across the country as well as prominent leaders in mental health. In parts two and three, The Daily will examine alternative mental health resources on campus and how mental health systems work at other universities, such as Michigan State University.

Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Dana Rath’s winter semester of her freshman year did not go smoothly. 

She got sick three times in one month and ended a tough relationship at the beginning of 2019. Combined with the culture of stress in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, she was unable to apply for summer music programs because all the deadlines passed while she was ill. The toll on her physical health impacted her mental health as well and she turned to The University’s Counseling and Psychological Services.

“That’s when I saw CAPS,” Rath said. “When you’re going through stuff like this, it feels really isolating. I felt really alone … I was feeling overwhelmed and sad about being overwhelmed with everything that’s going on.”

But Rath was not alone. CAPS received more than 5,000 requests for services in the 2018-2019 school year and 57 percent of University students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety. However, as students seek support for mental health, concerns about the inadequacies of the University’s mental health system are persistent. Grievances range from long wait times for CAPS initial consultations to inefficient distribution of resources between North and Central campuses and a lack of support for students of color.

Waiting for CAPS

Students have expressed their frustration with the wait time at CAPS through memes in Facebook groups and various petitions to increase CAPS resources and counselor availability. The wait time for an initial consultation at CAPS was the most common grievance among the University students interviewed for this story. 

Last semester’s wait times continue to drive the negative perception of the University’s mental health resources on campus. Todd Sevig, chair of UM Student Mental Health Work Group, told The Daily that the longest wait time for a CAPS appointment was two and a half weeks and they had the shortest wait time in Ann Arbor. However, many students said they waited much longer than two weeks.

According to the CAPS website, the initial consultation wait time is currently down to two business days. CAPS acknowledged the long wait times during the fall semester and attributed it to increased demand. 

Students vent frustration about the wait times through social media. CAPS-related memes were voted the second-best meme of 2019 by over 1,300 users in the “UMich Memes for Wolverteens” Facebook group. Meme tournament organizer Lucas Renno described CAPS as “representing pessimism, something broken within the University that may well be unfixable.”

In an interview with The Daily, Sevig emphasized the efforts at CAPS to address student concerns.

“I will meet with any student who wants to meet with me about CAPS or mental health,” Sevig said. “We changed our intake model five years ago. That only came from a student who was upset at the wait time for getting into CAPS. The dialogue, back and forth, I love it. So, email me with suggestions.”

LSA senior Sulayman Qazi told The Daily he was struggling with generalized anxiety disorder and was feeling out of place as a transfer student when he tried to make a CAPS appointment in Fall 2018.

“The wait time when I checked was 20-something days, and a friend of mine waited even longer,” Qazi said. “He said by the time he saw them, he was already over the situation he was having, and so he just had to compartmentalize it himself. I thought that was scary.”

LSA sophomore Eva Schwartz said students who would like to talk to someone sooner but do not feel like their situation warrants a crisis counselor are left in the dark.

“If you’ve made an appointment, the CAPS website could do a better job displaying other resources on campus in the meantime,” Schwartz said. “It’d be helpful to have a page that says, ‘If this doesn’t work for you, maybe consider going to Wolverine Wellness,’ or ‘Here are some of the other resources,’ outlined.”

Sevig acknowledges the system can backlog with long wait times in the fall as it processes a huge influx of students who are new to campus and struggling to adjust to college. CAPS saw 875 new clients in September 2018, more than double the number of an average month. While the wait time is back down to four days as of publication, Sevig said the recent surges have overwhelmed CAPS.

“The first five weeks last fall, we had about 300 students per week asking for help,” Sevig said. “So those 300 students who come in the first week need to be seen the second week, and you have another 300 who are new that second week, and then it just goes on every week. So, we’re doing a lot of work this year to think about how we can navigate next fall.”

Sevig did not specify his plans for reducing wait times but said he is looking at adding more counselors and is open to student input on how they’d like the process to change.

CAPS currently houses 39 licensed permanent clinical staff and 16 professionals-in-training. Sevig acknowledged there are trade-offs in the current staffing model, which consists of initial, crisis and ongoing consultation. 

“We could have the wait time for a scheduled appointment be two days,” Sevig said. “But if we were to do that, we would be sacrificing either the crisis work or the ongoing work. In any clinical agency, you’re balancing initial, ongoing and crisis work, so I want to increase initial and ongoing and maybe all three.”

In the 2019-20 fiscal year, Counseling Services was allotted almost $3 million. When asked what an increase in funding would mean for CAPS, Sevig said he would defer to students.

“We ask our Student Advisory Board, ‘If we were to grow, how could we best use new staff? Do we want to do online interventions? How long should that initial appointment be?’” Sevig said. “If we get new staffing and new funding, what we will do with it will be driven by students.”

A need for diversity

Students of color voiced concern about being able to find a counselor who can relate to their experiences on campus. LSA freshman Alia Cummings said it’s difficult to connect with counselors who do not innately understand the perspectives of students of color.

“One thing that I’ve noticed is that there aren’t that many people of color who are therapists on campus,” Cummings said. “Hearing from my peers, one of the things that we notice is when we go into these areas and we have different struggles and things like that … although it’s good to talk to a therapist, if the person does not look like us, then it’s very difficult for the person to be able to relate to us about what we’re talking about or to be able to even express those feelings because we know that the ability to relate will be very limited.”

Sevig said that CAPS is dedicated to diversity in their office and they put the photos of all their staff on the website to show their efforts. 

“We acknowledge the diversity, and we work with it,” Sevig said. “Our staffing reflects the diversity. About half of us are people of color.”

Connecting to North Campus

One of the biggest challenges campus mental health resources face is connecting with students on North Campus, which is up to a thirty-minute commute from the main CAPS and UHS offices. In the CSG Mental Health Taskforce report, 50 percent of students who take classes or live on North Campus said the physical distance from Central Campus CAPS has deterred them from using CAPS.

In response, CAPS is reaching out to students on North Campus through the embedded model, which places a dedicated staff counselor in 13 schools and colleges across both North and Central Campuses. Sevig said he envisions a further expansion of embedded counselors to include currently uncovered colleges, including the Schools of Education, Environment and Sustainability, Information, Kinesiology and Public Policy.

Since the CAPS office is located on Central Campus, it can be difficult for students in other colleges to seek out their services. Embedded counselors learn about the culture of the college they are assigned and meet with students from those schools. They also give referrals for students when they need additional assistance.

Rath reached out to Emily Hyssong, the embedded counselor at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, when she was going through a hard time, and through Hyssong, was able to make an appointment with CAPS.

“I only found out about it through a counselor in the music school, she told me about it,” Rath said. “She didn’t have enough room to see me herself. She had enough patients, so she recommended me to CAPS.”

Even though embedded counselors in the Schools of Music, Theatre & Dance, Engineering, Art and Architecture and Urban Planning are accessible to the majority of North Campus students, students at schools on Central Campus who end up living on North still face the barrier of a commute to seek professional help. 

“It is very far. I had one appointment that I waited a long time for, but due to the bus system, I was late and had to wait another four weeks for the next appointment,” said a student quoted in the CSG Mental Health Taskforce report. “I was discouraged and did not return to CAPS until I moved to Central Campus the next year. That was when I received the help I needed.”

When asked about outreach efforts to North Campus, Sevig said CAPS experimented briefly with counselors in Pierpont Commons in the early 2000s, but he said he sees that abandoned project as a failure.

“Students would come in and interrupt the counselors, they would open the door, they weren’t available. It just didn’t work.” Sevig said. “But there are a lot of students on North Campus who aren’t in embedded schools, so it’s on my list to think about accessibility for them.”

Defining a ‘Crisis’

CAPS offers crisis services but several students interviewed for this story said they were unaware of what is considered a crisis in order for them to see CAPS. 

LSA sophomore Noelle Seward suffered a concussion in October of 2019 and had to ask for accommodations in her classes. When she was struggling with keeping up with her classes and getting accommodations, she sought out CAPS to help her with the anxiety, but she did not think her situation was a crisis.

“There was such a long waiting period, and I don’t feel like this is something I can wait for,” Seward said. “They say, ‘If you’re in an absolute emergency, then you can come in.’ I don’t want to take that spot away from someone who is having suicidal thoughts or something, because they may need it more than I do, but that doesn’t mean I can wait two months to have my issue addressed.”

According to the 2018-2019 CAPS Annual Report, only about 4 percent of appointments were classified as urgent or crises. Due to the ambiguity, many students feel hesitant to prioritize their own situation and underutilize the crisis services. 

At CAPS, Sevig told The Daily that “crisis” is based on what students think and does not have one solid meaning. 

“Some centers define (crisis) by the professional staff. We intentionally do not do that,” Sevig said. “It is only defined by the student. Simply, if a student says, ‘I’d like to see somebody today,’ we say, ‘We’re happy to help.’”