This process, called referring out, exists because resources at CAPS are limited, even though more and more students are seeking help. Students who are referred out are usually dealing with issues that cannot be treated with short-term therapy — a semester or less.
Dr. Allen O’Barr, the director of CAPS, said he wishes his office could do more.
“Every therapist who works here would love to do long-term therapy,” O’Barr said. “We go to school for that, so we want to do that, but our first objective that we can’t let go is seeing people as they walk in, to make sure that they’re not having to wait weeks for an appointment.”
Until 2008, CAPS offered full sessions for students’ first appointments. Walk-in hours replaced this practice because O’Barr said people were waiting several weeks for an appointment, which CAPS administrators didn’t feel was immediate enough to meet student needs.
Students can walk into CAPS during specified hours Monday through Friday and be seen without an appointment for triage. Some students walk out of this appointment with only a paper list of off-campus providers and no follow-up.
O’Barr said he understands the process can be frustrating for students who are turned away.
“They get up so much courage to come here, and then they say, ‘You’re referring me out. Are you kidding me?’”
O’Barr said a lot of frustration comes from a misunderstanding of what CAPS does.
“We don’t have a session limit, but we don’t do anything other than brief psychotherapy,” O’Barr said. “We’re mainly focused on getting you over the hump that you’re currently in and moving forward.”
O’Barr said he doesn’t know of any college or university that offers long-term therapy to its students.
He said CAPS is trying to improve by implementing referral coordination, a service that 50 percent of students who are referred out receive. Referral coordinators call community therapists with students present and help them connect.
When students call these off-campus contacts, there’s no guarantee the therapists on the list will have room in their schedule to see them.
Lou Lipsitz, a psychotherapist in Chapel Hill, said he sees one UNC student, but he said he has received calls from several more students asking for appointments.
But Lipsitz said he has a full schedule, meaning he has to choose which clients to see.
“I take cases I’m interested in and where I think I can be helpful,” Lipsitz said. “There are some people who may have issues who I might not be able to see. They might need a therapist with different experience than I have.”
Student Body President Bradley Opere said it’s important to consider the strides CAPS has made recently, even though the 30 percent of students who are referred out might feel frustrated.
“I know a lot of the big steps that were recently made were to increase the salaries of workers in CAPS,” Opere said. “I think that’s really significant.”
O’Barr said he’s proud of the salary increases, but he would love to strengthen referral coordination to help those who CAPS refers out.
“I’m not sure it’s doable, but I would love for every student to have a referral coordinator, so you have that one person who knows you, can contact you and can make sure you’re taken care of,” O’Barr said.
Opere said he’s thought a lot about what could be causing the spike in students seeking on-campus treatment.
“Is it because the college environment is becoming more stressful for students?” Opere said.
O’Barr hopes to see CAPS improve.
“On the front end, I think we’re doing really well. Students are heard when they come in,” O’Barr said. “But on the back end, it’s loose.”