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Hanging in there: CAPS needs to expand to meet increasing need

CAPS will either have to cut some of the services it currently provides — such as all-day walk-in hours — or find the money to hire more staff.

“We’re doing a good job; we’re hanging in there,” said Dr. Allen O’Barr, director of CAPS.

“But last semester let us know that really, if you add just a little bit of weight on the back semester after semester, there gets to be a point where all that accumulates, and that’s what we began to be feeling last semester.”

The mental health center had 7,506 visits in fall 2015, as opposed to 5,425 visits in fall 2012.

At a Jan. 27 meeting of the Board of Trustees’ University Affairs committee, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Winston Crisp said CAPS is at capacity.

“CAPS is a sustainable operation, but as our students’ needs and demands for services increase, we are working to identify opportunities to maintain or increase our general counseling services,” said Christi Hurt, chief of staff for student affairs, in an email.

O’Barr said the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs has given him the OK to hire two temporary counselors so CAPS can finish the spring semester smoothly, but he said the long-term solution lies in hiring more employees and obtaining more space.

About 11.6 percent of the student body visited CAPS during the 2014-15 school year, which is about the same as three years ago, O’Barr said — but as the student population increases, the number of students CAPS sees increases as well.

“When we first started seeing people on a walk-in basis, I don’t know, eight years ago, we were seeing somewhere around 24 people a day,” O’Barr said.

O’Barr said, now, 35 to 40 students visit CAPS each day.

Rowan Hunt, co-chairperson of Rethink: Psychiatric Illness, a mental health advocacy group on campus, said the increase in visits may be a result of greater mental health awareness.

“As we are beginning to have more discussions about mental health on campus, we will consistently see a greater need for places like CAPS, because as students become more educated about the resources available to them, they will want to use them,” she said.

If CAPS wants to continue offering walk-in services, it will require more employees to handle the sheer number of students coming in, O’Barr said.

“We don’t turn anybody away from that first meeting where we sit down and make sure they’re OK, but we do have to refer out right now based on our capacity,” O’Barr said.

Referring out is a process in which counselors give students a list of mental health providers in the community and recommend they choose a counselor away from campus. O’Barr said CAPS refers out about 30 percent of the students who come in.

“It’s not a turning away as much as it is seeing a person and saying, ‘Based on what your needs are as a client and based on what we’re able to provide, you’re gonna get better services in the community,’” he said.

Hunt said most complaints she hears about CAPS come from students who need long-term care. If students needing long-term care are referred out after six to eight weeks, they have to find another counselor — which Hunt said can be a stressful process.

“It takes a lot of courage and energy to actually go to CAPS and go through those doors, especially with the stigma surrounding reaching out for mental health issues,” Hunt said.

O’Barr said having more employees would not only fix the issue of walk-in service, but it would also make the referral process smoother and easier to facilitate. Hunt said improving the referral process would help keep students engaged with mental health care.

“I think having a way to bridge the gap between these referrals and the students, whether that be helping them to make these calls or having some sort of online system where they can schedule their first appointment, I think would really make sure people continue their care,” Hunt said.

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O’Barr said being at capacity sometimes affects the experience CAPS provides for walk-in clients.

“I think that there were a few times last semester when the number of people that came in on one single day was so extreme that we weren’t able to spend as much time as we would have liked to with each one of those people,” O’Barr said.

He said CAPS wants to provide more outreach and education to the students. That’s something Rethink is working on, too.

“If we had better discussions about mental health and a better understanding of how mental health is a spectrum and you don’t have to be all the way at the crisis end before you get some help, then I think in general, Carolina would be a better place,” Hunt said.