CAPS Goes Virtual and Partners with Talkspace

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the kinds of mental health services to which students have access this fall will differ from previous semesters. On Aug. 17, Director of the Counseling and Psychological Services Center Dr. David Ramirez sent an email to the student body detailing C.A.P.S.’ plan for the fall semester. Key features of the Fall 2020 C.A.P.S. options include individual tele-mental-health services for on-campus students and students residing in Pennsylvania, three tele-consultation sessions for out-of-state students, and access to Talkspace, an online and mobile therapy company for all students, regardless of location.

Virtual sessions are a sharp contrast from the intimate atmosphere of a typical in-person session with a C.A.P.S. counselor, but nonetheless, the switch was deemed necessary by the college for the safety of staff and students, according to Ramirez. 

“All C.A.P.S. services are telehealth this fall to support the health and wellness of our students as

well as our staff members,” Ramirez wrote in an email to The Phoenix. 

Some students feel that the switch to virtual sessions will not make a difference in the quality of their C.A.P.S. sessions. Li Dong ’22, a student who has been using C.A.P.S. since her first year, isn’t concerned about the change for herself personally but anticipates the experience being intimidating for students who are using C.A.P.S. for the first time. 

“I have a good relationship with my therapist at C.A.P.S. so being online doesn’t affect me at all, but I think it could be odd for the first-time C.A.P.S. users and people who have never done therapy before,” she said. 

Mikaela Prestowitz ’24, an on-campus first year considering using C.A.P.S.’ services, echoed Dong’s concern for potential first-time C.AP.S. users. 

“Honestly, I think C.A.P.S. being over Zoom will be weird. I’m not sure if I’ll see C.A.P.S. this semester, though I’m definitely thinking about it, and Zoom sessions are one of the cons in weighing that decision,” she said. 

While students residing in Pennsylvania still have access to weekly or biweekly individual meetings with C.A.P.S. counselors, students in other locations only have access to three out-of-state consults. According to Ramirez, this is due to state laws for mental health professionals.

“All states in the US regulate professional clinical services through licensure laws for mental

health professionals; therefore, services provided directly by C.A.P.S. staff vary according to a student’s current residence. Limited out-of-state consultations for crisis intervention and case management are permitted by most states, which allows us to offer those three initial sessions,” he wrote.

Many students feel the three out-of-state consultations for the fall semester are inadequate. Edna Olvera ’21 currently resides out-of-state and expressed strong feelings regarding the option for three consultations.  

“I don’t think I will use the three consults for out-of-state students because I think that’s really disruptive. Three consults with a therapist is not enough to make any kind of progress,” she said.

According to Ramirez, the goal of the three consultations is to offer counseling options and advice on nearby resources to out-of-state residents in dire situations.

“The intention is for a solution-focused response to an urgent situation along with assistance in identifying mental health resources where the student is residing,” he wrote.

Regardless of location, however, all students have access to Talkspace, which offers asynchronous chat-voice-video contact with a dedicated counselor and weekly real-time sessions with that counselor. Ramirez said the college chose Talkspace in order to provide the possibility for ongoing counseling regardless of current residence. 

There are mixed sentiments from students regarding this partnership. 

“I sympathize with students who used C.A.P.S. regularly but now have to switch to Talkspace. It’s definitely better than having no therapy at all, but finding a therapist you like and building trust with them can be a tough process.” Dong said.

Her personal experience using a different online therapy platform reflects the difficulty of building rapport with a new counselor. 

“I used a different service this summer called BetterHelp that operates similarly to Talkspace, and I definitely felt like it was tough to talk to someone that I didn’t already have a connection to.”

While many students like Dong are apprehensive about the Talkspace partnership, some are optimistic and particularly keen on the opportunity to find a therapist who matches their identities or specializes in specific mental health concerns. After an initial consult session on the website or app, Talkspace users have the opportunity to select a therapist out of recommended personal matches. 

Although she did have some issues during the first few video-chat sessions with her therapist, Olvera has appreciated this aspect of the service. 

“I did have some issues connecting with my therapist at first, but I was able to choose a therapist that specifically dealt with first-generation and Latinx people and specifically dealt with some of the mental issues that I’m dealing with,” she said. 

An ongoing criticism of C.A.P.S. is that they cannot adequately meet student demand and do not offer enough resources for students of marginalized identities.

Olvera feels that access to different therapists to suit students’ specific needs is a major benefit to using Talkspace and questioned why an effort to partner with a service like Talkspace was not made earlier. 

“You can have access to different kinds of therapists that suit the needs of more students and the specific issues that someone might be dealing with. I remember thinking [when they announced the partnership], why haven’t they used Talkspace before if we know that C.A.P.S. has been overburdened?”

However, there have been concerns raised about the company. Talkspace has had a history of controversy in the mental health community revolving around insufficient wages for employees, breach of patient-client confidentiality, and safety concerns related to patients’ anonymity.  

When asked about the Talkspace controversy, Ramirez asserted that C.A.P.S. staff will be monitoring reports about the company closely. 

“This year we will be tracking the issues reported by various writers and Talkspace staff to ensure that student safety and confidentiality meets our rigorous professional standard prior to consideration of renewal of the contract,” he wrote in an email to The Phoenix.

Prior to the decision to partner with Talkspace, he also consulted with peer institution Williams College, who has a partnership with them as well. 

“I solicited feedback from the counseling center director at Williams; they have used Talkspace for a year. No concerns were expressed by student users there.”

He also explained that the decision to partner with Talkspace came before concerns regarding client privacy were raised in a  New York Times article published Aug. 7, 2020, and that C.A.P.S. is soliciting student feedback for Talkspace on their website.

C.A.P.S. continues to offer an on-call service for distress and crisis counseling at 610-328-7768, which can be reached 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Group therapy options for the semester have yet to be announced.

In addition to the changes brought about by the pandemic, C.A.P.S. hired a new Associate Director, Dr. Alberto Soto, on August 1, 2020. His most recent posting was as a staff psychologist at Brown University. 

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