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Mirrors

“Oh, I don’t need to go to CAPS.”

As a Resident Assistant, I’ve heard this phrase from so many people. In fact, I’m nearly certain you’ve heard it as well. Very few people have had a perfect college experience. There are just too many things that must align for life to be perfect. Perhaps you are a freshman and feel alone and homesick. Perhaps you are an upperclassman coming back from abroad who doesn’t fit into the new dorm you were assigned to. Perhaps there is trouble with your family, or perhaps there is trouble with your relationship. Perhaps you’ve been struggling with something for a while, or perhaps you are troubled by something recent. But despite everything, it is just so easy to say—

“Oh, I don’t need to go to CAPS.”

Sometimes, you really don’t need to go to Counseling and Psychological Services. Feeling down after a bad test probably doesn’t require counseling. But that statement often carries much more meaning than a simple statement of lack of need. There’s a certain stigma associated with CAPS that deter even the people who do want to see CAPS.

But there should be no shame in being associated with counseling. Life isn’t perfect. College definitely isn’t. Someone must be extraordinarily lucky to have never been in a place of mental weakness. There should be no shame in owning our troubles and seeing a counselor to get counseling. The people we admire most are not great because they lived perfect lives, but because they overcame adversity.

Perhaps we say it because it’s difficult to reach a level of vulnerability to admit that we do need help. Is it a therapeutic phrase to say to pretend that things are actually alright? It is one way to deny what we are going through by asserting on the surface that we are fine. In cases where I’ve suggested CAPS as subtly and helpfully as I could, the retort is still—

“Oh, I don’t need to go to CAPS.”

What then exactly is CAPS? Maybe if I share my understanding of counseling, both through my experiences and speaking with Dr. Gary Glass, Associate Director for Outreach and Developmental Programming for CAPS, we may feel a little less alienated by it.

We all have our mirrors. We look at ourselves physically in them every day. We also look at ourselves emotionally and irrationally. What values do we have? What goals have we set? What is the image of ourselves that we present to our friends, family, and community? If you’re lucky, you have an image that you are comfortable with, and it needs no further adjustments.

But when something bad happens, our image becomes distorted. In cases of depression, perhaps we feel that we are worth a lot less. In cases of anxiety, we feel overwhelmed and stretched thin. In other cases of insecurity, we feel like we don’t belong.

A counselor isn’t just a cheerleader trying to make you feel better about yourself. He or she isn’t just going to ask you “and how do you feel about that” over and over. Rather, a counselor will take that mirror you are using to look at yourself, and hold it more honestly, more completely, and most important of all, more compassionately than you’ve been holding it. This doesn’t mean that you can’t adjust your mirror yourself, as CAPS has an entire section dedicated to self-help. But when the mirror being held by your friends hasn’t found the best angle, perhaps a counselor who is professionally trained to hold the mirror can.

Sometimes people say, “Oh, I don’t need to go to CAPS. I have good friends who will listen to me,” and this is indeed true. Sometimes talking to your friends is enough because isolation is the primary pillar of a student’s struggle. Other times, the friend is one source of support while a counselor can attend to other things that training, experience and objectivity can offer.

In fact, while most college counseling centers across the country use the model of “recognize and refer” students to counseling, Duke prefers to “recognize and relate.” Because of the stigma associated with counseling, many students don’t complete the “refer” step. As a result, people fall through the cracks due to their distrust and disassociation from counseling. Having good friends is an important aspect of support, but that does not mask the discomfort people still have of going to CAPS.

You may still think this isn’t a big deal. There’s no need to overreact to the inevitable and trivial bumps in life. True, the more we broaden the definition of an issue like mental health, the more that issue shows up. True, significant personal growth can result from handling a situation on your own.

However, it’s hard to know the severity of what our friends are going through. Mental health is a spectrum, and on the worst case scenario end of that spectrum, six percent of undergraduate students have seriously considered attempting suicide in their lifetimes, and there are more than 1,000 college suicides each year. So it’s important for us to change the culture of what counseling is.

We may not “need” to go to CAPS, but the world isn’t divided between those who need to go and those who don’t. With the prevalence of the depression, anxiety, insecurity, loneliness, alcohol abuse, relationship troubles, eating disorders and feelings of hopelessness— just to name a few—college students face, it’s good to create a culture where people face no barrier to receive counseling.

I had one of those problems my sophomore year. When I finally saw CAPS several months later, my only regret is that I didn’t go sooner.

James Tian is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Monday.

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