Students Reflect on Experiences with CAPS, Mental Health during COVID-19

Photo of the CAPS Building Courtesy of Swarthmore College

In a post-virtual learning environment at Swarthmore, students are now attending in-person classes and events. Despite the college’s return to semi-normalcy, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) appointments remain available only through Zoom. Many Swatties have voiced concerns over the scarcity of appointments and therapists to fit their needs. At the beginning of the Spring 2022 semester, these concerns were met with what seemed to be the college’s response: a new director of CAPS, L. Simone Collins. 

Student complaints about CAPS have remained consistent over the past several years. In an interview with The Phoenix, Fouad Dakwar ’22 discussed the lack of appointments available for Swarthmore students looking for help from CAPS. Dakwar is passionate about creating change at CAPS and is currently filming a documentary on mental health services at Swarthmore. 

“I went from weekly to biweekly sessions … It was pretty early on in my time at CAPS. Even though I knew that I needed more time with CAPS, I think it was a scheduling issue … I’m assuming they’re really busy,” he said. 

Dakwar went on to explain the support CAPS provided to students during the early stages of the pandemic, deeming it insufficient. 

“I was in New York and they’re only able to practice where they are registered, so Pennsylvania,” Dakwar explained. “But they did do teleconsultations, which I guess maybe counted. You got up to three of those. This was back in 2020,” he elaborated. 

An anonymous source agreed that the process of setting up a CAPS appointment is difficult due to scheduling. 

“The process is a bit of back and forth for the first days and weeks: completing the form online, them reaching back out to you and proposing times for you to confirm, etc. The first time I wanted to do it in my freshman year, it was harder because I hardly had any availability in the mornings and early afternoon,” they said. 

Talkspace, an online and mobile therapy service for all students, is recommended as a substitute for CAPS over breaks when therapists are unavailable. It is also used throughout the semester if students are unable to schedule regular appointments. An increase in staffing might allow students to attend consistent weekly appointments rather than relying on Talkspace. 

Despite the pressing inaccessibility problems at CAPS, most students agreed that Talkspace was an ineffective way of dealing with the increasing demand for therapy among Swarthmore students. Sophia Peterson ’23 emphasized her dislike for Talkspace, among other resources offered by CAPS. 

“Trying to push people off to Talkspace is super annoying because I’ve had truly terrible experiences with Talkspace,” Peterson said. 

Funding for CAPS has also been a point of contention between administration and students. Dakwar remembers attending a talk with President Smith and SGO in 2019, during the construction of Singer Hall. 

“Someone asked if we really need new buildings when CAPS is being underfunded. She gave this weird pivot answer about how a building with sunlight affects mental health,” Dakwar reflected. “I remember asking, ‘Are you saying that you won’t recommend that more funding go to CAPS?’” 

Since before the pandemic, there has been staff turnover at CAPS. It is unclear whether the turnover was due to the virtual environment, or simply older employees retiring. Regardless, students agreed that it caused a shift in prioritization of regularized therapy. Peterson commented on this change in culture. 

“I went to CAPS before COVID and during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, I think they had a very different staff: it was a lot older and definitely less focused on getting you into regular/weekly/biweekly therapy. Now, it’s a lot younger and they seem to actually care about putting you into scheduled therapy, rather than just doing one-off sessions,” Peterson explained. 

Coupled with a new commitment to scheduling students for consistent therapy sessions, the college has made an effort to welcome diversity at CAPS — something that is generally scarce in the mental health space. 

In announcing Collins as the new director of CAPS, Vice President Jim Terhune cited her ability to address student concerns related to identity. In her role as director, Collins will be leading the CAPS staff rather than meeting with students personally. 

“Her areas of clinical interest include … concerns related to race/ethnicity, religion, class, ability status, body size, and sexual and/or gender identity,” wrote Terhune in a press release to the school. 

Dakwar echoed the need for staff with diverse identities, saying that he was lucky to be matched with a therapist equipped to engage with him. 

“I will say I got super lucky with my therapist. Someone who also happens to be a person of color, be queer. She’s also a woman so I felt like she understood a lot of things. From that point of view, identity-wise, a lot of people have complained about that and CAPS has hopefully been trying to improve. I guess the new hire is one step in that direction,” Dakwar said. 

Despite scheduling inaccessibility and complaints about Talkspace, students are hopeful that Collins will ignite change at CAPS, making mental health resources more available to all Swatties, but specifically students of color and diverse backgrounds.

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