March 7, 2003

CAPS Introduces Screening System

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Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Gannett: Cornell University Health Services implemented a new telephone screening system in February for students making new requests for therapy or psychological services.

With the implementation of the new system, students seeking care will have a 15- to 20-minute telephone consultation with a therapist or clinician the day they call in, giving them an opportunity to speak to a professional about their concerns right away.

During the phone conversation, “the therapist determines how to best match a students’ needs with the resources that are available,” according to Dr. Phil Meilman, director of CAPS. The clinician then schedules an appointment appropriate for the students’ needs or refers the student to another provider.

Adopted from the mental health services program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the telephone screening system aims to de-escalate anxiety for students seeking care and to help CAPS staff determine whether a caller needs emergency, urgent or routine care.

“So far, the students seem pleased to be able to talk to a professional the same day,” Meilman said.

“Emergencies are still seen the same day, urgent situations within 24 hours, and even if the decision is made that they will be seen later that week in a routine, non-urgent appointment, students feel more comfortable about waiting once they have had this contact,” he said.

Last fall, many students noting the increased demand for mental health care nationwide were concerned about the long wait times in scheduling routine counseling appointments.

“The new system will help CAPS to accommodate more students in need of immediate care,” said Melissa Wei ’04, president of the Student Health Alliance at Cornell.

Last semester, after consulting with students and administration and reevaluating the needs of CAPS patients, “CAPS came to a conclusion that students needed same-day access to care,” said Sigrid Frandsen-Pechenik, assistant director of CAPS.

According to Meilman, the new telephone screening system enables CAPS operations to run more smoothly and provide better service for students.

“If a student has an eating or alcohol-related problem, we can get them to an appropriate therapist directly without having to transfer the case after an initial visit because we know ahead of time what the issues are,” he said.

“In the old system, the student would have to physically see a clinician at CAPS before we learned what the issues were,” which according to Meilman “could delay receiving specialty care, if needed, for several weeks.”

Wei pointed out that “a downside is that the screening system may inconvenience students in need of long-term care who must now go off-campus to receive services.”

But according to Meilman, in response to the increased demand for mental health care services nationwide, “University counseling services around the nation are taking the approach that we need to do the best we can for as many students as possible.”

The services CAPS currently offers include consultation, brief counseling, crisis intervention services and group counseling.

CAPS will make arrangements for students making new requests for long-term care to be seen by Gannett’s partners in the community or other providers.

“For someone who needs ongoing long-term care, such as weekly therapy for a period of years, or ongoing therapy twice or more a week, we can generally arrange that through our relationships with agencies in town such as Family and Children’s Service or Tompkins County Mental Health or private practitioners,” Meilman said.

“However, if someone who ultimately needs such service is in an immediate crisis, we can help that student resolve the crisis, and then make further treatment decisions from there,” he added.

In other situations, some students seeking services at CAPS may not be looking in the appropriate office for the help they need.

Meilman noted that some students experiencing difficulties in school could consult directly with their advising deans or Cornell Career Services. The telephone screening system enables CAPS staff to direct students to the appropriate service, from counseling to career advising.

“Why wait three weeks to find out you need to talk to your advising dean?” Meilman said.

While the telephone screening system enables CAPS therapists to consult with all students who call in for appointments, Renee Lau ’04 pointed out that “most people find it difficult to open up in therapy, let alone over the phone.”

However, Meilman noted that the telephone consultation is not meant to replace therapy but to direct appropriate care to patients, and if someone is in an immediate crisis, they will be seen as soon as possible.

“The challenge is to find a balance between accommodating the greatest number of students without compensating the quality of care,” Wei said.

Because of the high demand for CAPS services, “any effort on their part to expand and improve their services should be of benefit to the students,” she said.

Archived article by Janet Liao