CAPS is only the beginning of effective treatment, and students need to be engaged

With good reason, discussions of the University of Toronto’s mental health resources usually focus on the Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS), a service that caters to students with mental illnesses, offering treatments from experienced clinicians that range from pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy to group therapy sessions. CAPS has increasingly come under fire in recent years for its apparent inability to effectively serve the number of students that seek its services. Admittedly, many of its procedural problems are due to a lack of adequate funding, which is reflective of a broader provincial shortcoming in terms of mental health funding.

For example, the service’s wait times for counsellor availability are decided on a case-by-case basis and are dependent on the severity of a given student’s case. While such lengthy interim periods between initial consults and actual appointments are undoubtedly frustrating for students seeking help, such waits are a reality for many individuals seeking external psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy as well.

One issue with CAPS that can be rectified feasibly involves the minimal extent to which students are actively involved in charting the course of their mental health treatment. According to an email interview conducted in February 2014 with Janine Robb, executive director of Health & Wellness, the process of matching a student to a therapist is largely based off of the counsellor’s initial clinical assessment of a patient’s case. From there, the student’s treatment is planned. However, the student does not usually have very much personal involvement in the decision, nor do they receive background information as to the credentials and personal experience of their clinician.

One alternative system to consider is currently being used by counsellors at Ryerson’s Centre for Student Development and Counselling (CSDC). “In our centre, the philosophy is to match all students to care as quickly as possible,” says Sarah Thompson, clinical coordinator at the CSDC. According to Thompson, one of the counsellors at the CSDC is responsible for community resources to which students may be referred to if they cannot be seen in the near future. All students who contact the CSDC are set up with an initial appointment for one in-person counselling session, the aim of which is to equip them with effective coping skills and strategies that they can use while waiting for their next appointment. For students whose cases are considered severe, the wait time for this initial appointment is usually a matter of days. For others, it usually takes up to two weeks.

CAPS could be greatly improved by exploring ways in which the service could effectively communicate to students the nature of the therapies it offers, particularly the pros and cons of each, and the areas of expertise of its clinicians. Additionally, CAPS should explore ways in which students can be equipped with effective tools to see themselves through the period leading up to their next treatment. The centre’s referral system might also be improved by creating a database of university-affiliated institutions and treatment options that can be shared and discussed with students, with steps taken to ensure that all students are more informed and confident about their future treatments. Students currently seeking services can visit CAPS’s website, familiarize themselves with the services offered, and do some background research in order to have more of a say in their treatment.

Catherine Virelli is a third-year student studying psychology research and English. She is The Varsity’s production manager. 

   Sometimes getting help is just about having somebody to talk to

I have written about mental health in the past, both as a person who has visited CAPS, as well as someone who has had conversations with other students who have attempted to reach out and receive help. In every instance, the response towards the University of Toronto’s mental health services have been overwhelmingly negative. If we look at the responses to the student led “How Does U of T Make You Feel?” campaign, or even at the disconcertingly long wait-lists for CAPS, it is clear that something needs to be done to alter the way in which mental healthcare is handled at U of T.

The first thing we need to understand is that discussing mental health is not something to be ashamed of. Loyola University in Maryland, for example, started up a “Let’s Talk” campaign that ensures students are able to access resources and find outlets for their concerns without the stress of having to visit trained professionals.

U of T needs to adopt a similar tactic. Set up rooms around campus where trained graduate students and young professionals from CAMH can sit for office hours during the week and students can drop by to discuss any issues they may be facing.

Ensuring that the trained counselors have access to resources they can pass on to students would be necessary to ensure that students are able to contact professional practitioners if required for more serious disorders or symptoms.

It would also be beneficial for U of T students if these counselors came from a variety of backgrounds, both international as well as domestic, as there are various cultural issues and culture-bound disorders that come up with students who are assimilating not only into university life, but also to life with less family support.

Another important aspect of implementing better mental health support is ensuring that it is accessible at any time. Mental health issues do not affect people during working hours alone.

A website called 7 Cups of Tea provides people with training in becoming better listeners so that they can interact positively with those in need on the website. Such a system would be of immense help to U of T.

With a community as large as ours, it is easy to feel incredibly isolated and trapped within oneself. Creating a website where any student or young professional can be trained to listen, and any other student can anonymously log on and talk about their distress, is a potential alternative to boost the support students are given without requiring them to be physically present.

These potential systems would better mental health support for students across campus and are easily accessible and surprisingly simple to co-ordinate. They would create opportunities for student leaders and young graduates as well as provide the student body with a free and simple way to talk about mental health. Sometimes, the problem can be as easy to solve as simply talking to someone who will listen.

Pratishtha Kohli is a third-year student at Woodsworth College studying psychology and criminology.