“I had a minor breakdown in a professor’s office. I was depressed and my parents’ marriage was the brink. This professor was the only person willing to listen to me. Afterward, he promptly got on the phone with CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services) and explained my situation to them. They were supposed to follow up with me. Of course they never did.” This story wasn’t from fall quarter. This story wasn’t from last year, the year before, or even the year before that. This happened in 1999. Though *The Review *received some more news from both the director of CAPS and the provost on current efforts to fix CAPS, detailed later in this article, it is clear that this issue, both intensely private and long-enduring, will continue to be a prevalent topic of conversation, especially amongst Stanford’s anonymous forums of discussion.
Erica Evans covered the issue in her excellent piece “Faculty Senate addresses Stanford’s mental health services.” yet few noticed until the popular anonymously written newsletter The Fountain Hopper publicized her findings along with some of its own original research in FoHo #7.1. When most students discovered that “CAPS subjects you to a 1-2 day wait to speak to someone on the phone for a few minutes, then a wait time of up to 12 days for an appointment,” many were outraged, including myself. Inspired by both Fountain Hopper #7.1 and events in my personal life, I wrote an article exposing various broken mental health links on the Vaden Health Center’s website.
When Mr. Heller, a current freshman who still wishes to remain anonymous, saw the article, he contacted me asking if I was writing a follow-up article. He had called CAPS for an appointment and waited for a month, only for it to be unceremoniously cancelled the very morning of his appointment. Supplementing it with a couple statistics and ancillary testimony, I published an article detailing his story. The Fountain Hopper then publicized the article it had inspired in FoHo #15. Online, anonymous social media app Yik Yak was flooded with posts such as “The Stanford CAPS article was so sad. All of those who are struggling: please know that there are people who you can go talk to. People care. People love you. You can and will overcome.”
This story reveals an important point: almost everyone involved in the public discourse surrounding Mr. Heller’s experiences did so anonymously, including Mr. Heller. Alleged issues with CAPS have leaped into public discourse because these new methods of anonymous online communication allowed students to avoid both admitting they visited CAPS and the associated stigma. But according to Dr. Albucher, director of CAPS, “[l]ast year about 14.5% of the student body sought help through the CAPS program, the largest percentage ever assisted.” Mr. Heller, at the very least, can find consolation in that he’s not alone.
There has been one significant criticism of journalistic work conducted by The Review about CAPS that merits a moment of pause. On the forum of CAPS confessions hosted by The Review, two confessions were highly critical of our various initiatives to increase awareness of this issue.
“How do you expect to change the fact that there are a lot of students who need help and a limited amount of staff? … If your only answer is “Hire more people,” then good job on the hard-hitting journalism.”
It’s tempting to hand-wave this away by saying that a quick-fix would actually be to “Hire more people.” However, the criticism points to something bigger that can’t be so glibly disregarded. The Review doesn’t know what to do other than ‘Hire more people’ so we asked Dr. Ronald Albucher & Provost Etchemendy on what they’re doing to fix CAPS right now. And, given that Mr. Heller’s story has become emblematic for the various shortcomings of the CAPS system, I asked Mr. Heller what he thought of their answers.
We corresponded with Provost Etchemendy for an extended period before he gave us a brief statement that we were allowed to print. For what it is worth, The Review gives its personal endorsement that Provost Etchemendy is personally involved in efforts to try to improve the system which he hopes will be rolled out in the near future. “I’m completely aware of the issues that students are concerned about and we are committed to improving both the performance and the perception of CAPS. This is a very high priority for the university.” Mr. Heller was not entirely pleased with the non-committal nature of the statement: “You can’t say something is a high priority to the University when it has sucked for a few years now and the best that has been done is that apparently “an additional psychiatrist was hired to their staff” … I don’t even know why the perception of CAPS is on his mind, he should be focused on actually getting students help… not maintaining appearances.”
Dr. Ronald Albucher gave us a significantly more substantial statement. He mentions a database, wellness.stanford.edu, that lists 150 physical and mental health resources for students. He emphasizes the diversity of the CAPS staff: “Our staff is diverse from a variety of perspectives including ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.” Finally, he hints that more funding might be on the way for CAPS: “The University’s budget process for next year is currently underway, and the funding level for CAPS is currently being reviewed.” Mr. Heller’s reaction to Dr. Albucher’s reflects general disappointment: “He says that students who urgently need to see someone should feel free to drop in, get a same day appointment, etc… but I felt like I needed care pretty urgently, and CAPS didn’t really give a s**t. … I don’t want to demand a same day appointment… what if there’s someone who needs care more urgently than I do?”
So, what’s to be done? The obvious thing to do is to attend and participate in the CAPS town hall that takes place on Wednesday, February 25th. The anonymous campaign can still go on. We are continuously accepting more CAPS confessionals on our website. However, for the university to change, it needs to know that change is needed. We need to talk without the protection of an anonymous screen. CAPS is unacceptably flawed. We should and will make it better.
If you’re interested in participating in future events to highlight issues with the mental health infrastructure on campus, please email CapsReform@stanfordreview.org