The Problem with CAPS

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Illustrated by Bridget Rios

Anonymous

“I’m sorry, I just don’t know how else I can help you.” I stared at the lid of my silver laptop and sat back in my chair — that’s not something anyone wants to hear from their therapist. 

In all fairness, the attendant I spoke with wasn’t likely a therapist, or a psychologist, or a psychiatrist. They are a student themselves. 

In the midst of the pandemic, I started my first quarter of college entirely online. Coming from a background rippled with a series of mental health issues, I knew I was going to need help getting through this period of isolation. 

As a UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) student, I learned I was eligible for the school’s Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) and its programs. I felt comforted in the availability of these resources — I felt safe. 

What many people don’t tell you about mental health is that it’s a long and hard process to get the kind of help you need. The process, as I’ve experienced, involves doctor’s visits, multiple referrals, and bouncing between different psychological services until you can find one that accepts your insurance.

When I started meeting with CAPS, I appreciated how they allowed me to reach someone without having to jump through as many hoops. There, I was assigned to meet with a clinical practicum student. As requesting medication at the time was difficult for me, our sessions consisted of learning different cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques that I could use. Unfortunately, for me, these techniques only helped a little bit. Finally, one day, the practicum student admitted she didn’t know how else to help me. 

“Have you tried jogging?” she asked. 

This experience left me feeling angry for a long time. Was I not doing therapy correctly? Was I really that bad of a patient? Later, I blamed her for making me feel so helpless and confused. The interaction affirmed my growing mistrust of mental health counselors, especially at CAPS. 

I wondered, does CAPS really help? If our school is so vocal about its mental health resources, why did reaching out to them hurt more than help me? 

Looking back, my misgivings about the center really stemmed from my personal misunderstandings of the CAPS resources. After all, what else could a clinical student do in a situation where therapy wasn’t working and medication wasn’t an option? In hindsight, I should have better advocated for a psychiatrist or psychologist, as I originally requested. 

But, when you’ve been wrung through this system of never-ending referrals and constant retelling of trauma and challenges, you get tired. I knew I needed help, but I was exhausted from all this fighting trying to get it. 

And, would I have even needed to advocate more for myself if they had connected me with the right person in the first place?

When I spoke to my friend with similar, long-term mental health issues, she told me that her personal therapist looked into CAPS when she was first admitted to UCSB. Together, they drew a conclusion: CAPS is best equipped to help short-term problems, but lacks in helping long-term mental health situations. 

For many students, CAPS is a perfect place to check in with mental health professionals when they face personal challenges or to benefit from meeting peers in similar circumstances through uplifting group therapy. The organization also has many services outside of counseling, such as its Mental Health Peer workshops or mediation with the Disabled Students Program

But, for many of us seeking individual therapy or referrals, there is a lack of resources regarding long-term therapy. The most immediate problem is the issue of scheduling appointments, which some students report have taken either weeks or months to meet with someone. Some students recognize this as a staffing issue, with there being so many students and a small number of professionals

For someone looking for periodic sessions throughout the year, this can be a significant problem. In tandem, an issue I personally experienced was navigation and how we could get connected with the people who I needed immediately, rather than who was next available.

Thus, overall, CAPS does help, but more for those who need short-term help. I wish these experiences with CAPS didn’t happen because I wanted (and still want) to believe that their resources are useful, sensitive, and helpful to all students. However, in order for equitable mental health care to be achieved, these staffing and scheduling issues need to be addressed. I worry for the future of UCSB’s students, especially as we navigate a post-COVID-19 pandemic world.

Over a year later, I still find myself benefitting from the CBT techniques that the CAPS practicum student has taught me. These techniques only started working more effectively, however, after I reached out to an external psychiatrist, was diagnosed, and treated medically. While our sessions didn’t end up the way we both wanted them, I am still grateful to CAPS for having learned what I did from the clinical student. However, to better serve our students, the school is going to have to step up for the long term.