December 7, 2001

CAPS Races to Fill Demand

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Last week, Christopher Dial ’03 called Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Gannett: University Health Services and tried to make an appointment for counseling. The next available appointment if he did not think his case was an emergency was Dec. 18, three weeks after he called.

“Right now you have people jumping off gorges, and finals are coming up,” Dial said in a later interview. “It’s pretty tough to go see a counselor. It’s humbling to do that. What upsets me is that when they say their next available appointment is in a month from now, well that doesn’t do anybody any good. And they don’t even say, well in the meantime you can use these other services; you’re just left hanging.”

With 22 counselors, not all of whom work full-time, it seems that CAPS is stretched to the limit as it attempts to serve the Cornell community of 19,000.

Last year, the counselors saw 2,068 students, and the numbers are only rising, according to Sharon Dittman, Gannett’s associate director of community relations. After the terrorist attacks in September, the center saw an increase of 16 percent in October.

“We haven’t been seeing too many students who are having problems dealing directly with the Sept. 11 tragedy, but a lot of students who were thinking that maybe they might want to see somebody before have been pushed towards us. Every year we see more and more people, and our staffing has been going up every year, ” Dittman said.

Dial’s experience is slightly unique. Many other students do seem to run up against the three-week wait for an appointment with a counselor. Most, however, find that other options are open to them including group therapy, and the office has a set time of day when walk-ins are accepted for fifteen-minute assessment and emergency sessions.

For some students, group therapy can actually be a better solution than individual sessions. “For some problems,” said Dittman, “group therapy is the treatment of choice. There have been studies that have shown that among college age students, groups are often better for dealing with homesickness, sexual identity issues, stress, and relationships.”

Group therapy is also advantageous for CAPS in that it frees up more time for counselors to see individual patients. “At a lot of schools,” said Dittman, “they offer general therapy groups [as opposed to the specialized groups that CAPS offers], which is something we are looking into.”

However, one anonymous student who used to be a patient at CAPS said, “If you’re coming in for therapy, you probably don’t want to do group stuff.”

The student’s other concern was with the program’s 12 visit per year limit. “They push a lot of medication here,” she said, “and I think that might be because they know they don’t have that much time for you.”

Dr. Maryann Bratton, one of the CAPS counselors, said, “We do not use medication as a way of maintaining the 12 session limit. Our decisions are always treatment-driven. Those 12 sessions are a guideline, so that we can help as many people as possible.”

Dittman added that Gannett “was one of the later mental health providers on a campus to institute a 12-session limit. It was a hard decision for us to make. But, less than eight percent of the people we saw were needing more than 12 visits a year. Having no limit made it harder for someone who just needed a few visits to get an appointment at all. The 12 visit limit has been very effective in freeing up appointments for more students. But, we would not have made that decision, except that we also beefed up our capacity to make referrals.”

Ithaca is a small community, but CAPS has found ways to use local and campus resources, including Family and Children’s Services off campus, as well as Empathy and Referral Service (EARS), Cornell United Religious Work, academic advising and Committee on Special Educational Projects (COSEP), community development, the dean of students office, and the athletics department on campus, according to Dittman.

For some other students, however, the main issue is money. Like all services at Gannett, CAPS appointments come with a $10 co-payment. Many competitor universities, such as Brown, Princeton and Columbia, have a policy that makes all psychological services free.

Bratton warned, “From schools I’ve been at where the service seems to be free, it’s actually not. The money is coming from tuition or some other source.”

Those schools where the services are at least seemingly free, do tend to have limits on the number of free appointments one can make. According to their website, Virginia Tech’s Cook Counseling Center has no policy on the maximum number of appointments a student can make for therapy. The site says, however, “Our experience is that most problems can be resolved without long-term counseling.”

Every one-hour session costs Gannett over $100. Dittman explained that part of the reason for the co-payment is philosophical.

“This way some of the cost is shared by everybody, and some is contributed by people who actually use the services. We’re very committed to making sure that people who need health care get it, regardless of their financial situation.”

“Let me just say,” said Bratton, “that there’s this perception that we’re not available. But, we are very available.”

Archived article by Freda Ready