Amanda* was having a rough Fall Quarter. She’d just come back from a study abroad summer session and readjusting to the rigorous academic culture in her senior year came with some reverse culture shock. She was drinking a lot and felt emotionally disconnected. She stopped caring about school and the prospect of entering a structured job did not excite her. Amanda turned to Counseling and Psychological Services [CAPS].
“It wasn’t that I felt like I needed help, or if I didn’t address it, I would be in danger of harming myself,” she said. “I didn’t want to graduate feeling the same [apathy]. It was a good opportunity to use therapy as a way to approach a problem.”
Amanda soon started individual psychotherapy. With that, she joined the approximately 10 to 12 percent of Northwestern students who use CAPS services, according to CAPS Executive Director Dr. John Dunkle.
Many Northwestern students hear about CAPS the moment they hit campus. The name gets scattered on Wildcat Welcome literature and practically everybody involved in helping with the transition into college, from CAs to faculty advisers, knows to talk about CAPS as a resource.
For the most part, students know what CAPS offers. In an anonymous online survey of nearly 200 sophomores**, nearly 80 percent said they knew at least somewhat about their services.
But how comfortable students feel getting help from CAPS may be another issue, with or without the recent controversy over the CAPS temporary move to Foster-Walker Complex. Almost half of the students surveyed said the stigma that comes with getting help for mental health problems rates at four out of five, five being an extremely high.
No matter what the number, the answer is clear — getting help for mental health can be an uncomfortable step for some students to take. When asked why pursuing mental help might hold negative connotations, several key words about perception popped up: crazy, shame, unstable and weak.
“I just think a lot of people at Northwestern are high achievers and have a problem admitting that they don’t have control over something or that there’s something they can’t completely handle by themselves,” said Amy Pooley, President of Northwestern University Mental Health Alliance [NUMHA], a group aiming to foster a safe environment to talk about mental health issues.
The college campus setting certainly may be a factor, but similar mental health problems exist for college aged non-students as well. A study published in late 2008 by the Archives of General Psychiatry found that non-students experienced about the same frequency of mental disorders, including substance abuse and anxiety disorders, as students. For general psychiatric problems, non-students actually had slightly more cases.
Yet only a minority of both students and non-students in the study received treatment for their problems. Dunkle said that CAPS tries to reduce the stigma of getting help through outreach and developmental programming. The programming targets prominent issues for students such as stress, long distance relationships and perfectionism.
“[The workshops have] developed based on trends we’ve seen over the years, [and they] help students develop skills to prevent a crisis,” he said.
CAPS also works both with NUMHA and an ASG advisory committee to gauge ways to make students feel more comfortable with the idea of getting help. The ASG committee recently helped CAPS make a new website, which Dunkle thinks is more welcoming than the old one.
Although most students in the sample actually agreed that going to CAPS held a stigma, many said they felt that they could comfortably talk about their mental health problems with their friends. Thirty percent of the survey respondents had even recommended a friend to go to CAPS. Most of them did not feel that approaching their friend about the problem was extremely difficult. Dunkle said that about 30 to 40 percent of the people who go to CAPS based on a referral actually continue services there.
Pooley said that NUMHA does not refer people to specific services in CAPS like individual psychotherapy does. “We really believe that how someone handles mental health is very personal,” she said. “It’s different for different people.”
Turning to CAPS is not a positive experience for everybody. Some students in the sample cited rudeness or lack of realistic solutions as one of the reasons they found that CAPS was not helpful.
However, just as many students found their experience to be useful, like Amanda. She said that her therapist helped her focus on central issues in her life, like getting motivated to go to class and managing stress. Eight sessions later, she felt that her problems had reached “a manageable level.”
“One day I walked in and I thought, ‘I think I’m done.’ Not in a sense that I’m cured; when you’re talking about psychological or emotional issues, it’s a process,” she said. “I still try to incorporate some of the things she told me about time management.”
Amanda said that she felt little discomfort in taking the step to go to CAPS because throughout college, her friends have opened up to her about their own experiences in seeking help for mental health concerns. Keeping an open dialogue made getting therapy “not really a big deal.”
“There’s this overall feeling that something needs to be wrong, something more to trigger the situation. It’s a mindset we should get out of,” she said. “It doesn’t really matter why you go. You shouldn’t be afraid what people think.”
*Name has been changed
**The survey was sent out to sophomores through the One Book One Northwestern email list, via Blackboard. Though this only represents one class, it provided a good cross section of different types of students.