When a student arrives at the University of California, Santa Barbara, greeted by tour guides with wide smiles and blue shirts, they are reassured that the small, peach-colored Counseling & Psychological Services building (commonly referred to as C.A.P.S.) will receive them with open arms.
But outside of orientation, student dissatisfaction reigns. Blasted across the Daily Nexus are articles stating that C.A.P.S. is an ineffective resource that feels impossible to access. Friends warn friends that C.A.P.S. is understaffed and underfunded. They inform each other that they may not be able to see a therapist for weeks and that some might not get an appointment at all. With the most “at-risk” cases — individuals with either severe mental illnesses or suicidal thoughts — prioritized, it can be difficult to secure a spot for others needing help. These issues cause students like Ace (whose name has been changed for their privacy), to ask if their problems are worth taking a space away from someone else “who might need it more.”
Rumors about underfunding appear to be close to the truth. However, in recent years, C.A.P.S. has evolved to better assess student needs and match available care with available options. It is my opinion that although C.A.P.S. is doing its best to accommodate an ever-growing demand, the organization requires more funding, physical space and attention.
Although C.A.P.S. is doing its best to accommodate an ever-growing demand, the organization requires more funding, physical space and attention.
Before attending C.A.P.S., Ace had been suffering from depression for five years without professional help. While they were aware of student complaints, Ace wasn’t apprehensive to attend C.A.P.S because “therapy [would be] fucking difficult from all points of view” whether it be from the patient’s perspective or the clinician’s — or the student’s calendar.
While they felt that the quality of help they received was top tier, Ace could feel C.A.P.S.’s lack of funding “right away.”
On campus, there is approximately one C.A.P.S. psychologist for every 967 students. Despite recent requests by C.A.P.S. to increase funding, dissatisfaction persists. The organization is supported by student fees, an additional charge directly paid by every student independently of their tuition — making the difficulty to snag an appointment even more frustrating to some. As reported by the 2019-2020 UCSB breakdown, $82.36 out of $1,820.70 of each student’s fall, winter and spring quarter service fees combined are dedicated to C.A.P.S. However, despite C.A.P.S.’ increasing their staff by 50%, student demand, measured by “initial contacts,” has risen by 127% in the past five years, causing the student-to-staff ratio to remain disproportionate.
This increased need for mental health care is evident not only at C.A.P.S., but across the nation. Janet Osimo, PsyD and assistant clinical director at C.A.P.S., remarked over email, “The demand [for mental health care] is high not just at UCSB but at the majority of college counseling centers.”
Taken over the course of thirty years, a national survey released in “The Journal of College Student Psychotherapy” shows that college counseling centers have reported an increase in client pathology — the level of mental illness an individual experiences — along with an increase in the number of patients they treat.
Another study, conducted by Phillipe Moriter, PDH et al. for the journal of the “American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry” found that college has become a “capture point” for individuals with suicidal thoughts and behaviors, as students enter university with their developing brains, counseling centers are integral to identify and prevent mental illnesses from progressing.
Both papers mark the importance of college counseling centers in the lives of the students they serve and push for universities like ours to properly equip them.
So how does C.A.P.S. measure up? Regarding wait times, Osimo shares that the period between a student’s Brief Assessment (BA) and appointment varies, with 46% waiting less than 7 days, 27% waiting between 8-14 days and 11% waiting between 18-21 days.
The C.A.P.S. BA system, wherein a student must drop in to be “assessed” by a C.A.P.S. intake personnel, has been in place for two years. It was developed with the hope that these quick check-ins would increase the number of people C.A.P.S. can help. After this mini-therapy meeting, students with sufficient need are assigned therapy appointments, while others are recommended student groups to attend. Osimo remarks that for the BA, 90% [of students] are seen in less than one hour, 32% of students … in less than 15 minutes. And 12% of students … [are seen in] 45-60 minutes.” But since the BA has to be conducted in person, it has proven to be another area where students find difficulty accessing C.A.P.S.
Assessments are usually conducted on a first-come, first-served basis. Ace remarks that students who are juggling classes and jobs are “screwed” when it comes to matching their schedules to that of C.A.P.S.
C.A.P.S. closes at 4:30, “and so [during] the times you might be able to go and do one of those intake appointments, [such as] around dinner— [C.A.P.S. is] not there,” Ace said.
But as Osimo acknowledges, “it doesn’t feel good to have to wait when we are dealing with an issue.” So, to try and combat student schedules, C.A.P.S. offers 20 peer group sessions where students come together and share their experiences. Furthermore, LiveHealth, a new teletherapy service which accepts Student Health insurance, now collaborates with C.A.P.S. to connect students and therapists online (and unlike C.A.P.S and Acacia, does not have long wait times).
“We also know that not everyone needs the same thing,” Osimo continued. “Many students just need one appointment to discuss a specific goal rather than meeting multiple times for therapy. We offer different options for different needs.”
By acting within their budget, C.A.P.S. has attempted to help the largest amount of students possible — but as history shows they need more funding. C.A.P.S.’ lack of funding has been an issue since 2006, when the Regents were presented with evidence of rising mental health issues in college students.
In response, from 2007-09 counseling programs across the UCs were granted a $12 million budget increase, achieved by raising student fees for two years (this was 28% of the initially requested $43 million dollars). They achieved decreasing the wait period for students to see a professional, but a rise in “the severity of student issues and greater demand for mental health services” continues to be a problem.
So in 2011, the University of California’s Office of the President applied for and received a $6.9 million student mental health grant funded by the California Mental Health Services Authority (CalMHSA). Each campus was given $500,000, and the UC continued to receive CalMHSA until former Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it in 2016 and 2017 because the UC didn’t state an exact amount of money or a source for it.
What remains for students is the fear that their problems are not “serious enough for C.A.P.S.”
Since 2015, the UCs have been increasing student services fees by 5% to address the lack of therapists. Because of this decision, 80% of approved new positions “have been filed across the UC system.”
However, issues like the UC’s inability to offer competitive salaries, recruit diverse talent and maintain consistent state funds have made it difficult to fill the remaining openings. According to the 2019-2020 budget detail, “additional funds are still needed [to hire more staff].”
People want to work at places that are financially stable. So, to help our students, we need to provide more benefits for our staff.
In their experience, Ace finds that C.A.P.S. does a good job of allocating its limited resources. By prioritizing people with serious mental health needs, Ace believes that even if a person is angry that they have been recommended to join a peer group rather than a one-on-one session, it’s important for students to understand that C.AP.S. is trying its best: “You got to trust in the expertise of the person sitting across from you … there’s a reason why they’re suggesting what they’re suggesting.”
However, what remains for students is the fear that their problems are not “serious enough for C.A.P.S.”
Ace recalls that they used to convince themselves that they were fine because there were people out there in worse shape than them. “I sit here like, ‘Should I go to C.A.P.S.? No, I shouldn’t go to C.A.P.S. because I’m fine and I’ve never attempted suicide, I’ve only self-harmed a couple of times in my life.’ I’m really not ‘that big of a risk,’” they said, adding air quotes. “But in reality, people have told me several times now, it’s not really about being a big risk — it’s about preventing a big risk.”
Ace advises that even though it’s scary, students need to be honest to ensure that they receive proper treatment:
“When you go into C.A.P.S. and they’re like, ‘Have you experienced any suicidal thoughts?’ do I really want to answer this question, and then I have that moment of ‘should I lie? Should I just be like, “no, everything is fine, it’s all fine?”’ And the most important thing to do is to say [to yourself] ‘No, I’m answering this honestly’ … because at that point, if you start being honest with yourself, the person sitting across the table from you has an ‘oh, fuck’ moment and they then can understand your needs better.”
“[The] world’s going to shit, and everything is on fire — all of the time. Our brains shouldn’t be having to go to hell while everything else is.”
But one of the limitations of C.A.P.S., Ace found, is that their therapy only occurs once every other week and “that model does not work for a lot of people … which is why they try to push people into Acacia and into Santa Barbara [Behavioral Health] clinic … to get them into therapy sessions that are a bit more regular.”
Rather than being a place for long term one-on-one therapy, Ace finds that C.A.P.S. works best for those dealing with a mental health crisis. It allocates its resources to helping the most people possible, and the easiest way for them to do that is to act as a place of transition before recommending more long-term options for therapy. However, C.A.P.S.’ lack of traditional therapy is an issue at the heart of student dissatisfaction with the organization. With midterms, the quarter system and the increased likelihood of developing a mental illness in their early twenties, all students deserve the option to speak with a C.A.P.S. therapist.
Ace’s solution to this problem is simple:
“They need more money. With the limited resources I don’t know what else they can do … keep putting more and more on them [and] you’re just going to crush them.”
Ace’s ideal for how C.A.P.S. should function involves more therapists, evening hours and the availability of weekly sessions for every student. “[The] world’s going to shit, and everything is on fire — all of the time,” Ace says. “Our brains shouldn’t be having to go to hell while everything else is.”
While Ace and I are currently in C.A.P.S. therapy, I have many friends who have “given up” trying to get in. C.A.P.S. is on-campus, takes student insurance and is a resource promised to us by the university. Demand for mental health care has risen, and while C.A.P.S. is doing its best to help everyone, they need more. Our campus needs more. But the question is: where can we find the funding?
If you are having any dangerous or suicidal thoughts, please call UCSB After Hours Counseling Services at (805) 893-4411. Or please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1 (800) 273-825. Everyone deserves love and guidance.
Hannah Morley wants all students struggling with mental illness or life in general to have a safe place to go, and admires C.A.P.S. for all that they do.