By Alexandra Copeland
Entering her freshman year in the era of Covid-19, junior public health major Rebecca Urm was one of many students who took advantage of the College’s mental health resources during this stressful and unprecedented time. Hopeful for guidance, she reached out to Counseling and Prevention Services (CAPS), only to be told to seek a long-term resource. Confused, frustrated and left with only a list of names, Urm had to take matters into her own hands.
“They gave me a list of people to contact, but then they didn’t really follow up or help me with that process,” Urm said.
While college can present new social experiences and a sense of independence, it can also be a period of uncertainty, which is why it is crucial for students to have access to sufficient mental health resources on campus.
CAPS is a student support organization that offers confidential programs such as psychiatric and therapy services. While some students have found these services to be helpful, many have expressed a desire for improvements.
Recent national data support the need for adequate mental health resources nationwide. According to the American Psychological Association, 60 percent of college students struggle with their mental health. In comparison, an Instagram poll conducted by The Signal found that 28 percent of respondents have used CAPS. While the poll is not representative of the entire campus community, it sheds light on the large number of students who use the College’s mental health services. This counseling demand is expected to only increase nationally.
CAPS offers 10 to 20 topic-specific support groups per semester, which provide services in areas such as anxiety, depression and relationship issues, according to staff therapist and Peer Education Coordinator Robbin Loonan. CAPS also provides individual and group therapy, as well as crisis interventions. Therapy services are only provided to students for one semester.
“We offer brief, solution-focused individual therapy, so it’s not a long-term model,” Loonan explained. “This is to make sure we are meeting all students’ needs, and to make sure we see as many students as possible means we can’t see folks long term.”
While students seem to be understanding of this demand issue, many still desire a long-term program at the College.
“Although it’s not ideal, I understand why [it’s short term],” said junior journalism and professional writing major Asaka Park. “You know that it’s for buying time and short term, and not a permanent plan.”
Others believe this lack of long-term counseling prevents students from using CAPS.
“I think for many people it’s discouraging to even go in the first place because they would rather not start going somewhere that won’t last long term,” Urm said.
As far as future availability of counselors, Loonan believes CAPS will continue to only offer short-term mental health services due to the increasing demand for student support.
“The need really has grown over the years, and it continues to grow,” Loonan said. “We are really just looking at different ways we can meet student needs and trying to be creative and proactive about making sure we have mental health resources for students.”
Though in-person counseling may be limited, the College recently launched 24/7 remote counseling services through Virtual Care. Through this program, students are able to receive standard or crisis counseling by speaking with a licensed therapist on a video call.
“I think the Virtual Care group was a step in the right direction,” Park said. “It’s free and finances are a problem for college students.”
According to a study from Inside Higher Ed, 63 percent of students who receive their college’s mental health services would grade them a C or lower. To examine whether this trend also pertains to the College, The Signal asked students on Instagram to voice their opinions on the quality of the services they have received, revealing a mix of both positive and negative experiences.
“I thought they were really helpful and effective,” commented one student.
“They honestly made my situation worse, made me feel really uncomfortable to talk,” wrote another student.
If students are using the same mental health resources at the College, one may wonder where these disparities in experiences lie. One possibility could be the differences in therapists, as they are primarily assigned to the student based on their specific need, but could also be assigned on the basis of availability.
“If a student is available at a particular time, that may limit or expand how many therapists may be an option for that student at that time,” Loonan said. “But we do have therapists that specialize in different areas, so we do try to match student needs with those therapists as their schedules allow.”
According to the poll and individual student voices, the most frequently mentioned complaint is the accessibility of CAPS. Since students can only use this resource for up to a semester, this leads to more room for issues within the referral process.
Urm, who was given a list of contacts for long-term support, said her counselor contacted two outside resources, neither of which responded. However, other students have been successfully referred to therapists who were able to support them.
“They were able to help me find a third party therapist that fit my needs and was also South Asian, so she understood my background and the conversation flowed a lot better,” said senior public health major Manasi Palle.
The inability to use multiple mental health resources at the College simultaneously has also prevented students from receiving the support they need. One student desired assistance from both CAPS and AmIOk, a program assisting students who have experienced trauma, but was told that they cannot be assisted by both programs.
“I was not aware of that,” said the student, who requested anonymity. “I let the therapist know that I wanted to see CAPS for more practical things, but the supervisor said I couldn’t do that.”
While some students are unsatisfied with CAPS, others have had positive experiences with their assigned counselors.
“My therapist was really effective,” said a student who wished to remain anonymous. “I was struggling with time management and ADHD, and they gave me someone who knew a lot about ADHD, giving me tips and tricks to make it easier for me to manage.”
Some students also had positive experiences with scheduling flexibility.
“It didn’t take me too long to get an appointment and the counselors were very good with setting up a time that worked best for me and my schedule,” Palle said.
Though there are areas for improvement within CAPS, the office provides resources that have helped many students with their concerns, especially in the transition from high school to college.
“It’s better than in high school–they didn't take my concerns seriously. They would say it's your anxiety talking, missing the point,” Park said. “As an adult, paying for an education, you have more power and agency for how you want to be helped.”
In addition to creating possible improvements within CAPS, some believe bringing more awareness to these services would be beneficial for incoming students.
“I was only made aware of CAPS my junior year, but I could have benefited from going a bit earlier,” Palle said. “I know a lot of people struggle with the transition from high school to college so knowing that there’s a resource like CAPS would be reassuring.”
With the need for collegiate mental health resources growing exponentially within the last decade, it is crucial that the College continuously improves its services. Students suggest that small measures, such as ensuring a smooth referral process for all students, could make a significant difference in the effectiveness of the program.
“CAPS staff should check-up on people a month after they start meeting with their therapist to make sure they are being helped,” Urm said.
Palle also noted that emphasizing the confidentiality of CAPS could benefit the program in getting students to reach out.
“I know that people don’t want others to know about their journey with mental health, and knowing that CAPS keeps everything anonymous could help push people to getting the help they need,” Palle said.
For any students struggling with mental health, Loonan suggests filling out an online request form through the College’s Online Wellness Link (OWL) in order to obtain necessary services. She also advises any student who is unsatisfied with their CAPS experience to contact the program directly.
“I would really want to encourage any student who had some kind of concern or didn't feel like they got the service that they need to contact us for help with that referral process and a therapist will work with them, even if it's a different person they saw previously,” Loonan said. “We’ll always make our best effort to try to help.”
Mental health resources:
CAPS Website: https://caps.tcnj.edu/
Capital Health 24/7 Hotline: (609) 396-4357 or (609) 396-HELP
Campus Police: (609) 771-2345 or 911