Studies show that amid the ongoing pandemic, the mental health of college students nationwide is only worsening, and USF is no exception.
Data from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University has found that out of 43,000 students who sought psychological treatment in the fall of 2020, 72% of students said that the pandemic negatively impacted their mental health.
“During the pandemic, there has been a significant increase in demand in psychological services, not just on college campuses, but across the country,” Molly Zook, interim director and assistant director of operations for USF’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), said.
These mental health concerns, while apparent nationwide, are being felt here on the Hilltop. CAPS has been met with an influx of students, and a shrinking amount of resources, as key staff positions remain unfilled and students experience wait times as long as a month. This has led to updated policies and a contract with the teletherapy service, Uwill, to meet demand.
Sophomore USF student “S,” who wished to remain anonymous, spent their freshman year of college staring at a screen, trading classrooms and lectures for Zoom breakout rooms and emoticons. There was an air of suspense for them in the move onto campus this fall, as they left the virtual world for an in-person reality with the threat of COVID-19 looming in the background.
“The move to campus was really stressful both as an environment change and through the fact that the risk of COVID-19 is much higher in student housing,” they said.
While the possible exposure to COVID-19 is challenging enough, their on-campus housing assignment made them feel “repeatedly invalidated and uncomfortable as a student with disabilities,” they said.
“S”’s roommates began to spread rumors about them, which led them to a mental health crisis. “I felt like I was a danger to myself if I were to continue to live in that environment,” they said. “I had to talk to someone.” So, they turned to the resource they had at their disposal: CAPS.
CAPS offers a multitude of services to students, such as brief individual therapy, brief couples therapy, group therapy for marginalized communities, single session therapy, drop-in workshops, and, most applicable to “S,” an all-hours crisis line leading to a brief crisis assessment.
“S” was able to get a same-day, emergency appointment with a psychologist after calling CAPS’ all-hours crisis line. While “S” planned to simply have someone to confide in, they ended up leaving the meeting with an action plan to find different housing and resolve the issue.
“I’m glad that CAPS has crisis appointments that are available day of,” they said. “It’s important that you are able to connect with someone as soon as possible out of concern for your own safety.”
Many USF students are having similar mental health difficulties. According to Zook, CAPS has “conducted about 50% more intakes, seen six times the number of crisis clients, and conducted twice as many single session clients. Compared to this time last year we’ve seen 115 more students.”
While the demand for student psychological services is greater than a typical year, CAPS’ resources have been dwindling. Students have seen wait times from two weeks to a month to be seen by a psychologist. Since spring 2020, three staff psychologists have left the office, and the positions have remained unfilled. Zook herself is working two different positions within the office.
“We’re actually seeing more with less people,” Zook said. “I am so proud of our staff for how hard they have worked. I have never seen in any other year, people putting in the time and being there for students. It’s incredible how many students they’ve been seeing.”
For “S,” the services received at CAPS were “extremely helpful.” But for others, CAPS’ lack of available counselors has left students like Gemmaly Boyd, a sophomore Japanese studies major, feeling “extremely dissatisfied.”
After the wait for an appointment, Boyd met with one of CAPS’ therapists and found it to be surface-level treatment and unhelpful for their own healing. They never attended a second appointment. “I wish they’d hire more people or open more lines,” Boyd said.
Zook said that CAPS is aware of the dissatisfaction that many students are feeling. To combat this issue, CAPS has contracted the teletherapy company Uwill to provide another therapy option for students. Beginning in January 2022, this service will help CAPS “meet the demand for services and be able to provide more therapy sessions to students,” Zook said.
CAPS plans on using their hiring search for the three, empty positions as a way to diversify the office. According to Zook, they are looking to hire a psychologist fluent in Mandarin and another who will address the needs of Black students. Dean of Students, Dr. Shannon Gary is conducting the search for both positions.
In another update, beginning next semester, CAPS will implement what Zook calls a “triage intake.” As of now, when students call to make an appointment, they wait before receiving an initial assessment. With this new system, students will immediately have a 15 to 20 minute phone assessment “with a therapist so we can get more information about what their needs are and fit them into the right therapy service,” Zook said. “The wait times will come down, and students’ needs will be met more appropriately.”
These updates to CAPS’ services and modes of operation work to further fulfill what Zook said is at the core of CAPS, that students will be “heard, seen, and understood for the distress they are experiencing,” she said. “We hope they can leave CAPS feeling supported, that they have new insights or ways of handling their struggles.”
Megan Robertson is a sophomore media studies and performing arts & social justice double major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.