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CAPS works to address ongoing challenges

Despite lowering wait times last year, CAPS is hoping to treat students even more efficiently in 2015-16. | Chronicle File Photo
Despite lowering wait times last year, CAPS is hoping to treat students even more efficiently in 2015-16. | Chronicle File Photo

With mental health an increasing focus on college campuses nationwide, the University aims to augment overall support in the coming year, and to address Duke-specific challenges.

In the year leading up to a Spring 2013 survey by the the American College Health Association, more than half of college students nationally said they have experienced “overwhelming anxiety,” and 31 percent reported that they had felt "so depressed it was difficult to function." Approximately seven percent reported that they had seriously considered suicide.

At Duke, a number of traumatic events in the past year—including the deaths of two students on the same day, the shootings of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill and, most recently, the hanging of a noose in the Bryan Center—highlighted the importance of paying attention to mental health.

Counseling and Psychological Services at Duke aims to improve students' access to their services in the upcoming year, and to decrease stigmas against seeking help, said Gary Glass, CAPS associate director for outreach and developmental programming. He noted that CAPS is actively working in conjunction with student groups to mitigate issues as effectively as possible for the 2015-16 academic year.

“Some of the challenges that CAPS faced this past year were also great opportunities,” Glass said. “In all this, CAPS recognized the importance of accountability, as we offered support and pledged ongoing commitment to supporting all of our students.”

Reaching out to the community

Some of last year's greatest challenges for CAPS included issues of racism on campus and across the country, violent conflicts around the world and natural disasters and tragedies, such as the recent earthquake in Nepal, Glass said. The first step in the event of any communal issue is to describe to students the various CAPS services available to them, Glass noted.

“We will continue taking steps to describe the wide range of services we provide, from counseling sessions, group therapy and medication management to various workshops, programs and training sessions,” he said.

Of these steps, Glass highlighted the importance of discussion sessions to help students explore cultural and racial identities. Last year saw several of these sessions in the wake of the Chapel Hill shootings and the reversal of the decision to broadcast the Muslim call-to-prayer from the Chapel.

In keeping with the spirit of group support, group counseling opportunities were promoted by CAPS in the past year and were tremendously successful, Glass said. These type of services were less specific to any individual event, but more geared toward the overall well-being and safe environment for students on campus.

Alongside efforts to stimulate group support, CAPS aimed to increase mental health dialogue by partnering with Duke Student Government and the Student Wellness Center to put together Duke's first Mental Health Awareness Month in February 2015. The DSG equity and outreach committee invited different student groups to host wellness events throughout the month—including the “What I Be” project, aimed at addressing students' insecurities through photographs.

Ongoing concerns

Glass noted that ease of access to CAPS services—particular one-on-one appointments—is an ongoing issue.

The number of students seen by CAPS staff has increased by more than 50 percent in the last 10 years—with a rise of more than 10 percent in the last four academic years, The Chronicle reported in 2014.

This increase in the number of students using CAPS services might contribute to a delay between a student's first call to CAPS and their first appointment. For several years, there was an average wait of about nine days, but that wait time dropped to four days this past year, Glass said. He noted that improvements in this area can still be made.

Ease of access will be solved in part by the creation of a Student Health and Wellness Center next to Penn Pavilion, which will bring together several health services, including CAPS, the Student Health Center, the Wellness Center and the Office of Case Management. Scheduled to open in Fall 2016, the Center will also feature spaces for wellness group sessions as well as a pharmacy, acupuncture and massage therapy services.

Additionally, Glass acknowledged the need for CAPS to refer students to off-campus facilities if their problems need more immediate attention. The Student Blue insurance plan offered by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina offers mental health coverage, but students often perceive a referral to an off-campus provider as too inconvenient, Glass said. In coming years, CAPS will aim to bridge the gap between on-campus resources and resources across Durham.

Aside from administrative changes, both faculty and student group leaders agree that more subtle changes need to be made in the culture and attitude surrounding mental health around campus.

"The biggest challenge is still to normalize the idea of struggling," said senior Isabella Kwai, co-president of Peer for You, an online service where Duke students can anonymously send messages to undergraduate peer responders. "We still haven't reached a point where people are comfortable talking about the ways we truly feel stressed, anxious and inadequate."

Kwai emphasized that problems of campus culture were better handled by peer groups instead of services offered by campus, since peer groups have an inside view into less tangible problems.

"Student groups will always have an edge that University groups don't, because they begin organically," Kwai said. "Their very existence is to address a need that administrators may not always be aware of, simply because they don't have to undergo what Duke students do everyday."

Students' unwillingness to seek help and the stigmatization of mental health problems are not unique to Duke. Sue Wasiolek, assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students, said such problems seem to be a common denominator among peer institutions, and the solution to these problems is a work in progress.

"We will continue to encourage students to take care of themselves and each other and one of the best ways they can do this is to take advantage of all the resources available to them," she said.

Wasiolek mentioned Duke's solidarity with colleges such as Tulane University, the College of William & Mary and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that have dealt with spikes in suicide rates over the past school year. She said that students at these schools are not alone in their struggles, and stressed that Duke's community was in and of itself a valuable resource.

"Whether it's talking to a friend, an RA, a faculty advisor or a CAPS counselor, students should recognize that they are not alone but are instead part of a caring community with vast resources," Wasiolek said.


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