According to the 2011 American College Health Association National College Health Assessment, 48.8 percent of University of Georgia students reported feeling hopeless sometime in the previous year. And not all of them are receiving the easy access to treatment they want and need.
At UGA, the main resource for students seeking mental health advising is the Counseling and Psychiatric Services center housed in the University Health Center on campus. While CAPS can help people get better and achieve mental wellness, due to issues of staff retention and endless demand they are not always able to meet the needs of a campus of 34,536 diverse students.
Numbers and compensation
While the mental health situation at UGA is not an isolated problem, the pressures of being a college student can push students to have greater needs.
“It can be stressful to go to UGA even if you are not dealing with any mental disease or disorders,” said Edward Delgado-Romero, professor and graduate coordinator in the Department of Counseling and Human Development Services. “I think CAPS should be the leader for services on campus. They have a lot of really good people over there.”
Ash Thompson, interim director of CAPS, said 2,393 different students received a face-to-face assessment or treatment with a CAPS clinician during the year, ending in June 2014. For students, CAPS is an affordable option for help, as sessions are $25 for those who have paid all of their student fees or a little over $100 for those who have not, and the required 10 to 15-minute initial phone consultations are free.
But while the fees are low relative to private practitioners, students may be paying for this is other ways.
There are 26 clinicians seeing students at CAPS and there is one additional person on staff on temporary leave, Thompson said. But there are also five open positions, including one for director and associate director, in addition to three psychologists.
“Turnover [of staff] is higher than we would like,” Thompson said. “I think there are a lot of reasons. If someone makes a decision to leave their job, that is always an individual decision, but our salaries are definitely part of it. It gets difficult to recruit staff when our salaries are low.”
According to the postings on the UGA Job Site, the salary range for clinical resident positions is $36,000. Delgado-Romero said he knew someone that turned down a position at CAPS because of the relatively low salary and the center's lack of permanent director.
“When you don’t have full staff, you only see some people and can’t do as much outreach and prevention work,” he said.
Emphasis on short-term care
While Thompson said CAPS offers services like crisis intervention, diagnosis and treatment, according to their mission, CAPS is not designed for serving students with long-term individual counseling needs. And a resulting focus on short-term care means CAPS has to set limits on the number of individual sessions for a student.
“We have in our policy a maximum of 25 sessions as a guideline, but in practice it is much lower than that because of demand for our services,” Thompson said. “We want to serve as many students as possible, so that means that if students needs are going to require a lot of sessions or a long time, they will be better being transferred to a provider in the community so that they can establish that relationship with them for the long term.”
Victoria Glover, a junior psychology and human development major from Cordele, said she had approximately four to five sessions at CAPS across a span of about two to three months. But after counseling, she felt the effect of the time crunch on providers.
“[CAPS] was okay,” she said. “They are helpful, but I don’t think it works long term. I do not have a problem with CAPS, but I did feel rushed out, in a sense. The sessions were good, and I had a good counselor, but towards the end I felt somewhat uncomfortable and I stopped going because there were cheaper options and a better fit for me elsewhere.”
In order to go to CAPS, a student must first take part in the free initial phone consultation and then a more in-depth, in-person consultation. For students not referred to other resources, Thompson said there is then approximately a two-week wait unless there is an urgent need for care, in which they can come in without an appointment.
According to the 2013 Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors survey, 32 percent of centers had waiting lists at some point during the school year. But no matter the school, this can put students in difficult positions as they define their needs.
“The problem with having everything operating on the short term is that everything kind of has to be an emergency or a crisis, and that is not fair to people,” Delgado-Romero said.
This is part one of a two-part series looking at the state of mental health resources on UGA’s campus.