CAPS and trade
The University should increase its support of student mental-health care
Mental illness transports loved ones away: sometimes temporarily, as we struggle to recognize a friend in the grips of a manic episode; and sometimes irrevocably — the recent death of first-year College student Jake Cusano, whose mental-health status was unknown, is one such irreversible loss.
Student Health’s Counseling and Psychological Services, the main arm of the University’s mental-health care efforts, has in recent years seen increased demand for its services, as well as increased severity of problems that draw students to its offices, CAPS Interim Director Matt Zimmerman said. Zimmerman attributed the swelling number of patients to declining stigma surrounding mental-health treatment and CAPS’ successful outreach efforts: the agency works with the Office of the Dean of Students and Residence Life, among other organizations, to ensure students in need are aware of the resources CAPS offers.
The University’s psychological services are strong. The school’s suicide rate is one-third the national average for public institutions of a similar size, Zimmerman said, and the Office of the Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer has consistently made mental heath a priority: health and wellness is one of the VPSA’s six core values, and enhancing students’ “psychological well-being” falls under the office’s mission statement.
CAPS has taken steps in recent years to serve students more efficiently. In August 2011 it implemented a screening process to prioritize need and risk. The screening system helps CAPS officials determine whether students need to be seen immediately, within 48 hours or within a week. CAPS has also tightened its operations by referring students who need a specialist or long-term therapy — and can pay for it — to community providers, freeing up resources to treat other students in-house.
The amount of care CAPS can currently offer, however, has been pushed to its limit. The agency is at space capacity. The office’s space constraints preclude CAPS from hiring any more therapists, Zimmerman said.
CAPS now has about one therapist for every 1800 students. An ideal ratio is one to 1500, Zimmerman said.
The agency has done its part to maximize its efficiency. Now, it needs to be able to hire more staff to keep pace with a growing student body. If the administration approved more space for CAPS today, it would likely be two years before the division could hire an additional therapist, Zimmerman said. In that interim, more and more students will enroll at the University, and the upward trend of those seeking mental-health treatment shows no signs of abating. Considering this probable two-year wait, the University should act swiftly to start putting plans in place for expanding CAPS.
For public universities, matters of funding are a delicate balance. Many offices clamor for dollars within student affairs. CAPS receives funding from student fees, which include a health fee. The Board of Visitors must approve increases in the student health fee. The VPSA office, then, should consider pursuing supplemental funding sources for CAPS, rather than waiting for the Board to approve fee increases. Some funds dedicated to student life — which might otherwise go to pizza for first-year students or flyers for events that get canceled — might be better spent on CAPS.
Though concerns about mental wellness flare up in the aftermath of a student death, the psychological health of students is an ever-present, ever-pressing issue. The fragility of psychological stability, and the grim implications for what can go wrong, mean mental health must remain near the top of the VPSA office’s priorities list. And to CAPS, which dispatched therapists to conduct floor meetings in dorms after Cusano’s death, and which has proved itself worthy of sustained support, we tip our caps.