Content warning: this article contains references to suicide, self-harm, and other mental health-related issues.
It’s the week before Thanksgiving 2019 and I am standing in the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) waiting room when the receptionist walks out with a piece of paper. She hands it to me. “This is where you need to go,” she says. I look down, and on the paper are directions to the Middlesex hospital. This might seem like a thoughtful gesture if you ignore the fact that I had spent the previous night under observation in that very hospital after being deemed a danger to myself. These directions were the cherry on top of a thoroughly traumatizing 48 hours thanks, in no small part, to CAPS.
CAPS does not just have a dearth of funding, but a dearth of compassion. Mental illness is a leading issue among college students, especially during a global pandemic. According to a Gallup research study, nearly 45% of college students were treated for depression and anxiety in 2020, and 1,100 college students died by suicide each year according to a 2006 study by Paul S. Appelbaum. These are well-known statistics, yet, in my experience, the University seemed unable to provide adequate mental health resources. According to the Journal of the American Association of Suicidology, only half of Psychological Service trainees receive even limited training in suicide prevention. Therefore, it might not be fair to expect all CAPS therapists to have the training to deal with suicidal students, something most therapists are not equipped to handle. However, I believe part of the problem has less to do with training and funding than their reliance on bureaucratic methods, likely put in place to protect the University. These protocols result in a lack of compassion from the entire CAPS program, even to students in dire need.
Two days before that unfortunate encounter with the CAPS receptionist, I woke up consumed by the overwhelming desire to hurt myself. I was having a bad reaction to my antidepressants and was suddenly spiraling. I knew if left alone, I might hurt myself so I tried several times to reach my psychiatrist, who did not respond. Lying terrified in my Hewitt single, I called CAPS hoping for emergency advice. They told me I would just have to wait until the next day because they didn’t have any available appointments. In other words, they had no time for me. Knowing I wasn’t safe, I spent the night with a friend and counted down the minutes until my appointment.
The next day, I arrived at the Davison Health Center and realized that there was no separate entrance to the counseling office. I walked through the waiting room to the reception window on unsteady legs. I could feel the tears welling in my eyes when I realized other students would hear me explaining my situation to the receptionist.
I sat down with my CAPS therapist and immediately knew it was a mistake. I tried to express my fear that I would seriously hurt myself. I just wanted help understanding these terrifying urges and why I was having them. What I needed was clear and direct advice like what skills could I use and how could I remain safe at the moment. I needed to create a plan for my safety, whether that was going home, to the hospital, or seeing the CAPS psychiatrist. Instead, I got the confusing advice to either engage in self-care by lighting a candle or checking myself into the hospital. Without adequate direction, I was confused about how to proceed. The therapist allowed me to walk out of my CAPS appointment even knowing that I had a very real chance of killing myself. I believe they were afraid to take a stand for fear of how the wrong call would reflect on the University.
Afraid for my safety and confused about what other effects my medicine might have, I called my mom, who told me in no uncertain terms to get myself to the hospital immediately. I spent that night in the hospital under observation. The next morning I was directed to return to the University’s counseling center and speak to the psychiatrist there.
Following another embarrassing walk through Davison Health Center, I found myself standing in the CAPS waiting room and being told to return to the hospital I had just been released from. I could not get in touch with my own therapist, but CAPS has a policy that means their psychiatrist will not see students who are not current patients, even if they are in imminent danger. For this reason, I found myself on my own again without adequate advice. I will never forget the way the members of CAPS—employees of the University I pay to attend—made me feel. I filled out a questionnaire regarding my experience but never heard back. I was just one of many disillusioned students who they could not take the time to hear.
Despite my very real trauma, I am privileged in a number of ways. I had spent the previous three years in intensive therapy and had an arsenal of skills to choose from. I have a family that supports me and is understanding of mental illness, and friends willing to drop everything and stay with me to make sure I am safe. Finally, within 72 hours the medicinal side effects wore off and I was safe again. Not all members of this community would be so lucky. Without any one of those factors I might not be here today and CAPS would have to reckon with that.
People talk all the time about the lack of funding at CAPS, but no one acknowledges the lack of compassion. More funding can’t free them from protocol. They should not pretend they can help students in crisis while still enmeshed in measures that leave the students, like me, hanging. CAPS was not adequately prepared to help me even as I dealt with a serious mental health crisis and instead prioritized following bureaucratic procedures over taking responsibility for student health. Who knows how many students have suffered under CAPS’ care? I worry that without a complete reorientation of values more funding might not be enough to reach the next student in crisis.
Eva Phelps is a member of the class of 2022 and can be reached at email@example.com.