It may not be apparent what a student has gone through before showing up at the reception desk at the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services. Maybe it was the prodding of a friend concerned that he had been more than just stressed, more than just “down” during the past few weeks. It may have taken the student months to work up the courage to admit that something is wrong and then to seek help. But unless he shows up visibly distraught or requests an immediate appointment, he will be handed a clipboard and instructed to fill out a computerized intake form. If he is lucky, he can schedule an appointment a few days later. If he is not, he may have to wait up to a month.
Faced with an impersonal computer questionnaire and a lengthy wait period, many students never come back to CAPS. Some make it through on their own, and some are able to find other – often expensive – resources. The death of two students in the past month is a painful reminder that some students never find the assistance and support they need.
The effects of mental illness cannot always be held at bay while waiting for an appointment. CAPS may be doing the best it can, but with demand for mental health services rising, its best is not be enough.
Mental illness is widely misunderstood and stigmatized. To combat these misconceptions, the University has launched public education campaigns about mental health and the student group Finding Voice has emerged to advocate for mental-health issues and help students find support on campus. But even so, seeking treatment for mental illness remains far more difficult than for physical illness.
The problem of seeking help for mental illness runs deeper than CAPS’s overbooked schedule. For most students, CAPS – designed for short-term treatment – may be the only option available. Students can visit a private practitioner, but a lack of health insurance or inadequate mental health coverage can leave counseling or treatment out of reach. Even the University’s Psychological Clinic, which offers a sliding scale based on need, may still be inaccessible to students.
For CAPS to accommodate student demand, the University will have to supply additional funding to expand its services and staff. There is no excuse for students to have to wait three weeks – the current wait time – to meet with a counselor. But there are also easier, significant steps CAPS itself can take to make its services more accessible. Finding Voice has recommended that each student meet with a counselor, not a computer, upon visiting CAPS to discuss the student’s needs and then set up a regular appointment or make a referral. Even this simple change would help more students who visit CAPS receive the assistance they are seeking.
The pace of college life only amplifies the often devastating effects of mental illness. CAPS can be an important resource for students seeking psychological services, but only so long as students are matched up with the treatment or counseling they need. Students facing a health concern should never have to wait a month for an appointment – whether suffering from mono or depression.