Three weeks. That’s how long it takes to see a specialist at USF’s Counseling and Psychological Services.
Barbara Thomas, senior director of CAPS, said that 10 years ago, a student would only have to wait a week for an appointment. Now students may have to wait up to a month because CAPS cannot manage the large amount of students coming in.
A 2015 report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State found that between 2009 and 2015, the number of students visiting college counseling centers across the country increased by an average of 30 percent.
More students are using CAPS for a number of reasons, Thomas said, including the decreased social taboo around seeking help.
Meeting Students’ Needs
“None of us are comfortable or happy with a three week wait,” Thomas said.
Psychologist and CAPS Crisis Manager Peggy Yang said her schedule each week is completely booked with both crisis and non-crisis appointments. During the first week of November, she had 16 crisis sessions — 50 percent were walk-in and 80 percent were experiencing some depression or suicidal ideation, on top of other issues.
Students in immediate danger of harming themselves or others can be taken in as a walk-in appointment, but this can mean bumping back other appointments, according to Yang.
The service sees students with all types of needs. Some cases are more severe than others. “Just this fall, we ran some stats,” Thomas said. “We had seen about 600 students. Of those 600, in answer to the [statement] ‘I have had thoughts of harming myself within the last two weeks,’ 39 percent said ‘yes,’ and of that, five percent were at the severe level.”
CAPS has experimented with ways to see students faster.
The “Let’s Talk” model, which offers informal drop-in hours with counselors in the University Center, has been modest in its effectiveness, Thomas said. This model may be abandoned.
Impacts of the Wait
Sophomore Ciarra Nean-Marzella has struggled to schedule appointments when she has needed them. This year, she was able to make an appointment with a two and a half week wait. When she didn’t realize in time that she had to show up early for her first appointment, her slot was bumped to later in the week.
“At the time, I was really struggling and I felt like I really needed to talk to someone,” she said. “When I booked this appointment, I really needed to talk to someone within the next day or two, and now it’s been three weeks later and I’m still stressed about it, but I have other things to stress about. I really don’t have time to go now.”
Students respond in different ways when they have to wait for therapy, according to Thomas.
“People go away and come back two hours later and say ‘I’m in crisis.’ That’s one implication [of long wait times]; people learn to play the system,” Thomas said.
In January 2019, CAPS will implement a $30 fine for no-shows in an effort to increase available appointments for students seeking services.
Yang said students need to understand the triage system under which CAPS operates.
“We need to triage based on [situational] severity,” she said.
Nean-Marzella said she wants more psychologists hired. CAPS currently employs eight therapists, three interns and two postdoctoral fellows. They serve a student body of 10,714 undergraduate and graduate students.
Thomas agrees, and believes that CAPS could double their staff and still keep busy. In 2016, they added a therapist after the Black Student Union started an initiative to raise money to hire an African American therapist.
But financially, CAPS can’t keep hiring psychologists, Thomas said.
CAPS has also discussed setting a standard number of walk-in hours each day and doing more single sessions, as opposed to long-term therapy, to open up the schedules of more of their staff. But this could be a challenging adjustment for staff, Thomas said.
Some students have sought off-campus assistance, but it is often difficult to make an appointment, Thomas said.
Sophomore Monika Kariuki used CAPS in her freshman year, but has since struggled to schedule an appointment. She searched off-campus but said it’s been difficult to find someone who accepts her insurance. Another student was told by her insurance that she wasn’t “sick” enough for individual therapy, Thomas said.
Students can also go to the CAPS website to find a variety of evidence-based materials and use resources from the packet of materials offered after they make an appointment. Students may also call a 24-hour helpline to speak to a licensed therapist.