At a time when more students than normal are suffering from anxiety and depression due to the coronavirus pandemic, UNC Charlotte's Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is decreasing the amount of free therapy sessions they offer from twelve to a maximum of six. To substitute this deduction, CAPS is offering more theme-based group therapy sessions. This change has provoked strong opposition from the student body.
Junior Susanna Couch told the Niner Times that she is disappointed “that UNC Charlotte isn’t adjusting CAPS to the level they have courses, dining, and housing. Mental health is essential and their services are a part of our student fees. The isolation and stress that comes with online learning is a challenge within itself, so the fact that CAPS isn’t operating at full capacity, but remotely, is concerning.”
A 2018 survey conducted by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD) revealed that the majority of surveyed counseling centers believed that they needed more hours with their students. On average, the survey showed, universities have 19 counselors for a student population of 30,000 students. UNC Charlotte has about 30 CAPS employees, including doctoral interns, graduate assistants and support staff.
That was before the pandemic. According to a survey of 18,000 students conducted by Healthy Minds Network and the American College Health Association in July, 66% of respondents reported higher financial stress during the pandemic. 60% of responding students described mental health care as difficult to access.
Senior Ella Sánchez told the Niner Times that she sought outside therapy sources. “My [CAPS] therapist told me about [the new policy] so we could come up with a plan. I have access to off campus therapy so I used up all my school sessions and will meet with the other therapist soon,” she says.
“I definitely feel sad about moving on from CAPS," she added, "but I view this as a new chapter in my life. Even if the sessions weren’t reduced, my relationship would have ended eventually with my graduation. They have helped me with so much and I want to express my gratitude.”
CAPS can help students find outside resources; however, many students do not have the financial resources to seek off-campus psychiatric support. With that in mind, CAPS is trying to emphasize more group therapy for students. This too has brought controversy.
“There is no perfect solution for this, but this is not the time to introduce group therapy at this level," Couch told the Niner Times. "Meaningful improvement in one's emotional state often requires individual therapy, too. Individual sessions should be just as accessible as they were before, particularly for students who have been using CAPS for a while for chronic mental health conditions.”
In regards to the increased reliance on group workshops, Sánchez says “I just want to put it out there that I’m not happy about reducing individual sessions but CAPS is still a great resource that has helped me a lot. I’ve done their workshops, the survivors group and social confidence group.”
When asked about alternatives and how students can cope when therapy options aren’t always available, Couch responded, "There should be an open dialogue between [students] and their professors. Instructors don’t know if a student is struggling emotionally if they don’t say something. If they feel like their mental health is becoming a true hindrance, they could consider registering with the office of disability.”
Sánchez added to that, suggesting "looking into organizations like Safe Alliance and Time Out Youth that offer mental health resources. The next best thing would be to have a strong support system. This could be family, friends, or even professors. I would also dedicate time to practice self care, or doing something that brings you joy (like a hobby). Lastly, I would suggest exercising or spending time in nature. I realize that these things are not the same as speaking to a mental health professional; however, these are some things that can really help if you don’t have access to therapy.”
While it's important to note that these students are not psychology experts, as students who have experienced firsthand the combined stressors of school, the coronavirus pandemic, and other aspects of life, they do offer valuable insight.