“At Williams and Trinity, students from 2014-15 waited at most two days to get non-emergency mental health counseling,” reads a petition circulated earlier this week. “At Amherst, they waited a day and a half. At Bowdoin and Connecticut College, they had no wait. At Wesleyan, they waited three weeks.”
Last summer, University Director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) Dr. Jennifer D’Andrea announced that Advanced Practicing Nurse Practitioner (APRN) Katina Varzos had left to pursue a full-time employment opportunity. Dr. D’Andrea indicated that although no prescriptions would be issued through CAPS, students could schedule consultation appointments with their clinicians to locate a prescriber in the community.
In response, University students, led by a group that includes Paige Hutton ’18, Nat Warner ’17, Aliya Shecter ’20, and WSA Student Life Committee Chair Lizzie Shackney ’17, have launched a “Wes Needs CAPS” petition and photo campaign. The petition and corresponding Facebook event details the obstacles students face without an APRN available. It also argues that the University is generally less responsive to the non-emergency mental health needs of the student body compared with its peer institutions. In addition to increasing the CAPS budget for the first time in six years, the petition calls for the hiring of two new full-time psychologists and the promotion of half-time therapists to full-time positions.
“CAPS has simply not been equipped enough to provide the amount of support that Wesleyan students need; it falls in the middle of peer schools in terms of FTEs (full-time employees), staff to student ratios, and wait times to get an intake appointment,” Shackney wrote in an email to The Argus. “The concern is with availability of care rather than quality of care, and we’ve worked with Dr. Jennifer D’Andrea to support her new money requests and make the case that students need the increased availability of service.”
Hutton, another one of the campaign organizers, was on the Wesleyan Student Assembly’s Wellbeing Committee last year, during which she had worked on planning a speakout for students with mental illnesses to share their experiences. The speakout didn’t come to fruition that semester, but the scandal surrounding the dismissal of Scott Backer from the University earlier this semester felt to Hutton like a natural opening.
“Everyone was ready for a change, and I think that right now students are ready to push for those changes,” she said.
Hutton explained what she sees as one of the fundamental issues underlying mental health treatment on campus.
“The administration is under the impression that they don’t need to care for our mental health needs, but they cater to our physical needs,” she said. “At a school where we do all this heady stuff, where we deconstruct everything, wouldn’t they think that they also need to take care of our mental health? It’s one of those things where in order for them to understand that they should be taking care of our mental health, there needs to be some sort of ideological shift.”
Right now, according to Hutton, the campaign will focus on the immediate future, especially given her experience on the WSA last year, during which she was told by members of the administration that there was not enough demonstrated student interest to justify expanding CAPS.
“What we need right now is an APRN in CAPS, and a shorter wait time for therapists,” Hutton said. “Right now, the goal is to communicate to Roth and the budget people, the board of trustees, that there is student need.”
Although Dr. D’Andrea is on vacation and not available for comment, Davison Health Center Director Joyce Walters argued that Health Services has been responsive to student concerns that include prolonged wait times and the absence of an APRN.
“Members of the WSA recently met with Dr. D’Andrea to discuss these issues and the reform,” Walters said. “Additionally, the staff keeps current on articles and postings in The Argus and Wesleying. Some students also discuss these issues in sessions and/or groups with their therapist.”
The Health Center has fast-tracked the search for an APRN and hope to fill the position by spring. Walters elaborated on the Health Center’s difficulty with finding an APRN that possesses the precise capabilities and experience necessary to fill the role.
“The specific type of Advance Practice Registered Nurse we are searching for is someone with a specialization in prescribing appropriate pharmacologic modalities to treat identified mental health conditions,” Walters said. “There is not currently a surplus of providers with this skill set available in our community looking for part-time employment, which is why a recent search was unsuccessful. We do believe we will have success hiring full-time APRN as our search will draw nationwide candidates.”
Joie Akerson ’17, a member of the Student Health Advisory Committee, explained that in the wake of Varzos’s departure, the WSA has worked with Davison to ensure that students are able to access medication.
“[The lack of an APRN] is obviously a massive inconvenience to anyone needing meds,” Akerson wrote in an email to The Argus. “There are prescribers off campus that accept insurance, and Davison can provide transportation to these locations. Lili Kadets [’17] and Lacey Miller [’18] are working on making some sort of infographic to help students figure out how to get to these locations.”
In the past, CAPS has improved the services they offer in conjunction to student concerns. Akerson elaborated on one such new service.
“There is a new after hours on-call service,” Akerson said. “Previously, a student needing medical advice after hours would call and speak to a nurse, they would hang up, the nurse would then call an on-call physician, who would then call the student back. The Davison staff recognized this as very stressful; someone calling in psychological or physical distress should not be hung up on. With the new service students will speak to on-call physicians right away. These physicians will connect the student with a local physician if the distress is acute, (like thoughts of suicide).”
Walters also detailed CAPS reforms in the past few years. CAPS has diversified the clinical nature of a staff that now includes Ph.D-level clinicians, Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW), and Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC). The Health Center has hired two clinicians who specialize in the treatment of eating disorders and body image issues, as well a practitioner to focus on working with GLPTQI students and other marginalized groups. In addition, through an ongoing workshop series in peer mental health advocacy, the Health Center has collaborated with over 350 students to increase campus outreach. The Health Center has also created an extern program through CAPS for students working on their Ph.Ds.
For the organizers of the Wes Needs CAPS campaign, however, the situation is too urgent to wait. Hutton outlined the organizers’ plan of action.
“The first layer is the profile picture changing,” she said. “I’m learning a lot from the AFAM is Why campaign and the campaign for Asian American studies. Next week, we’re going to do a photo campaign like Alton [Wang ’15] did [to show support for an Asian American Studies program] called, ‘Where are you really from?’ We’ll be here in Usdan Monday through Friday, hopefully, taking pictures of people about why we need CAPS. We’ll be providing that to the administration as well.”
At Hutton’s last count, on Thursday, the petition had accumulated 499 signatures.
“I didn’t really expect there to be this much support,” she said. “I mean, I knew it was an important issue, but to know that there’s probably 500 signatures just in a couple of days, before we’ve posted in WesAdmits…that’s really amazing. I just think it underscores the fact that this is something that people want.”
Shackney reflected on the campaign’s potential.
“I think for something like this to go through, it’ll take a big commitment,” she wrote. “It’s a lot of money, and we have to see what we can shift around in order to make that possible. I think once we bring together the WSA resolution, the petition, the survey, the photo campaign, etc., we can make a pretty clear case as to why this is important.”