NU Active Minds hosted a panel Thursday night to "demystify" mental health services at Northwestern, taking questions from students and addressing common misconceptions about Northwestern's Counseling and Psychological Services.
Dr. David Shor of CAPS, Professor Brady Clark, Assistant Dean Mona Dugo and an undergraduate student clarified issues related to taking a leave of absence, the 12-session limit and group therapy.
Why is there a 12-session limit to therapy at CAPS?
Shor explained that the session limit only applies to ongoing individual therapy, so CAPS' other services are unlimited to students, including group therapy, phone consultations, initial visits, workshops and crisis appointments. The average number of times a student uses individual therapy is six, Shor said, and the session limit was set due to the number of employees able to meet with students.
Any crisis or walk-in appointment can be accomodated, Shor said, and CAPS employees keep time slots open in their schedules in case a student needs to meet with them quickly.
Sessions with students are also confidential and won't be disclosed to anyone unless the student signs a written release of information, Shor said.
When the 12 sessions are done or a student wants to find a psychologist or psychiatrist off-campus, CAPS has close relationships with other practices and can refer them, Shor said. The referral is made in line with the student's insurance plan and special circumstances can be worked out for students who are concerned about costs, he said.
What does the leave of absence look like?
One of the biggest misconceptions about the medical leave of absence is that it's involuntary, the panelists said. The leave of absence is always voluntary, though it may seem scary at first, Shor said.
"Students come in and they have this trajectory in mind, and it's very hard for students to let go of that idea that they had," Dugo, assistant dean of students in student assistance and support services, said. "The truth is that we can always work it out academically. Three to six months off of school to learn to feel better and to feel happy in the long run is a great investment."
Students who want to take a leave of absence fill out a form online and meet for an appointment with CAPS, where they work with a specialist to create a treatment plan for their leave. That plan could include many options depending on individual situations - individual therapy, meeting with a pyschiatrist, group therapy and more. Some students may pursue a part-time job during their absence.
Dugo said that students who take a leave of absence for their health retroactively, after their quarter has already started, are refunded their tuition for the quarter and there is no mark on their transcript indicating the leave.
When students return to campus, they have another appointment with CAPS to check in and talk about how to succeed while transitioning back to student life.
How sensitive are faculty to mental health issues?
Clark, who works with students as an academic advisor, said that undergraduate faculty don't undergo any training in mental health and they may not be familiar with some concepts.
"I was not aware of many issues until I became an academic advisor," he said.
However, the overwhelming majority of faculty are very understanding and want to help students, Shor said. Part of his role at CAPS is helping students reach out to their professors to resolve academic issues related to mental health, and professors are accomodating and helpful "98 percent of the time," he said.
Students can also easily register their mental illness through AccessibleNU as a disability, disclosing as much information as they want to professors, Dugo said. This step can help students and professors work together to make classes more manageable.
What are the obstacles students face in reaching out for help?
The student panelist, who shared their experience about taking a leave of absence, said that a major obstacle was realizing their need for help. The student said it was also "terrifying" to take a leave of absence, a sentiment the other panelists echoed. Shor emphasized that there is no perfect path for Northwestern students and said there are a million tracks and options to take in college.
Students seem afraid to reach out for help because they will be treated in a punitive way or forced down a certain treatment path, which is not the case, Dugo said.
"It's so much easier to walk past Searle than to walk up to the second floor of Searle and say 'Hi, I'm here for some help,'" Shor said. "That feels weak to some people to do that.
"But to me, if you know you need to do something, even though you don't want to do it because it's uncomfortable, but you do it anyway because it's the right thing in the moment, that's the definition of courage. I see everyone who comes to us as courageous, walking in the building and saying I want to work on this."
What mental health resources are available to students?
CAPS has several internal resources for students, including workshops, individual therapy and group therapy. Shor said group therapy is one area that CAPS is expanding because of students' positive feedback. On a smaller scale, students can use CAPS resources like their egg chairs, egg-shaped chairs in the office that are built for relaxation with internal surround-sound speakers for students to listen to music.
Northwestern has other mental health resources outside of CAPS, which are listed here.