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Which mental health service is right for you?

Advantages and disadvantages offered by CAPS, the Women’s Center

“How are you doing this week?” was the standard question third-year Kinesiology student Carley McQuain heard when she attended weekly sessions at the University’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services. McQuain began attending CAPS sessions when she was diagnosed with an eating disorder during her first year at the University. After a semester of treatment — an exception to CAPS’ typical six-session limit — McQuain ultimately sought outside help for her condition.

CAPS, the University’s primary psychological counseling clinic, is often the first resource students think of when looking for help with a mental health issue. However, the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center also serves a similar function, treating students for conditions including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse and others. Students also have the option to seek outside private treatment if they feel the University’s services are not meeting their needs, as in McQuain’s case.

CAPS policies

When a student chooses to go to CAPS for counseling, there is a screening process involving a brief phone call. According to the CAPS website, during the phone call, a student will be given follow-up recommendations such as an appointment to be seen by a therapist or a referral to “several different group therapies or workshops.”

However, there is typically a six-session limit for students who choose to see a therapist. Executive Director of Student Health Dr. Christopher Holstege said the six-session limit usually meets students’ needs.

“It is the goal of CAPS is to assist students in receiving services that best meet their needs,” Holstege said in an email statement. “Commonly, six sessions is sufficient to meet these needs.”

However, some students need more than six sessions for treatment. In these cases, Holstege said therapy could be extended until the student secures resources to receive care in the community, graduates or is more stable.

Holstege said the length of time a student must wait to get an appointment depends on his or her need, but most students are seen within a week.

“During peak time, the wait time will increase,” Holstege said. “The wait time will depend on the need of the student. Students in crisis, depending on the nature of the crisis, will be seen in an emergent timely manner.”

Growth in the number of students seeking mental health resources could be the reason why CAPS sees extended wait times for appointments. Holstege said this growth creates “significant economic constraints” on CAPS.

The Women’s Center

Another University resource for mental health treatment is the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center. The Women’s Center and CAPS work together to provide counseling services for University students, but differ in the processes to treat students, the length of counseling offered and who can receive their services.

Like CAPS, the Women’s Center provides initial phone consultations followed by an appointment with a counselor. Students who call the Women’s Center could be placed on a waiting list before having an in-person appointment, depending on demand. Unlike CAPS, the Women’s Center does not have a 24-hour hotline and does not provide crisis counseling. Both centers make referrals to providers in the Charlottesville area when students have reached their session limit.

Both the Women’s Center and CAPS provide counseling services for men and women. However, CAPS only provides services for University-enrolled students who pay the student health fee. Charlotte Chapman, director of Counseling at the Women’s Center, said the center provides services for students, staff and faculty, including students who have withdrawn from the University.

Although the Women’s Center and CAPS offer similar counseling services, the Women’s Center focuses specifically on survivors of sexual assault and other gender-based violence.

“The center provides support to those who have experienced rape, sexual assault, stalking, domestic violence, emotional, psychological and verbal abuse, as well as other concerns,” Holstege said. “CAPS provides these services as well, though is more equipped to serve students in a current crisis or students in need of psychiatric — medication management — care.”

Advantages and disadvantages

McQuain said CAPS is a good place to start for mental health treatment, but students should consider all of their options and be informed about each one. If she could go back, McQuain said she would likely go straight to a private practice in the community instead of CAPS.

“[Our talks] were helpful, but not really getting at the eating disorder part,” McQuain said. “More, it was like, ‘How are you doing this week?’ and it was just kind of a time for me to vent about how stressed I was about everything going on.”

Following the intake process, McQuain was placed with a general therapist, and never saw the CAPS professional specializing in eating disorders. She said this oversight was possibly due to a coordination problem. McQuain received successful treatment for her disease from a therapist at home once she had left the University for summer vacation.

Fourth-year College student Emily Kline said the short-term aspect of CAPS is a turnoff for potential patients.

Kline is the president of the University’s chapter of Active Minds, a national organization focusing on spreading mental health awareness and reducing the stigma of mental illness.

While the six-week limit sours some students’ opinions, Kline said the center’s flexibility is one of its strengths.

“I’ve never heard anything like someone was in a crisis and no one could help them,” Kline said.

Beyond CAPS, Kline said the Women’s Center is a good resource for long-term counseling. She also said HELP Line, an anonymous and confidential telephone service run by Madison House, as well as other national mental health hotlines are useful when an individual simply needs someone to talk to.

One downside of the Women’s Center is that it cannot prescribe medications because it does not provide psychiatric care. This makes CAPS the an attractive option if the student lives on Grounds and their treatment requires medication.

McQuain advised trying out CAPS — at least at first — to see whether it might be a good fit for a particular student.

“I feel like CAPS is a good place to start, just for that first meeting, but then, depending on how that first meeting goes, really go with your gut,” McQuain said.

Maggie Servais and Siyu Chen contributed to the reporting of this article.


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