Taking the lid off CAPS

Opinion by Lily Zheng
Jan. 19, 2017, 1:17 a.m.

Ah, CAPS. Over the last three years, I’m not sure if any other organization at Stanford has received more scrutiny. In 2015, “mental health” was the buzzword on campus. Students responding to more national or global events overwhelmed the services CAPS could provide, and in the discontent that followed, a movement started on campus.

During a town hall with CAPS director Ron Albucher in Feb. 2015, students expressed a wide range of different concerns and negative experiences with CAPS. Many took issue with the triage process, unhelpful counselors and long wait times, leading to the admission from Albucher that CAPS at the time was both understaffed and underfunded. For the remainder of that academic year, CAPS continued to be the object of heavy scrutiny, culminating in the publishing of the ASSU’s Mental Health Survey, which collected responses from over 1600 Stanford students.

This survey showed that many students had positive experiences with the mental health services they had received, though more than 40 percent of the respondents indicated that they would be unlikely to go to CAPS, and nearly 20 percent were unaware of mental health resources on campus. Yet, public outrage about mental health faded soon afterwards, leaving behind a plethora of new student groups and marking a tentative end to one of our many cycles of campus activism.

Now, as campus nervously awaits the inauguration of our president-elect and prepares to double down on social justice issues, it’s almost a given that CAPS is about to receive an influx in student demand. And yet, perhaps because the plethora of issues outside our campus has shifted our attention away, we’re not talking much about CAPS these days. Rather than take this as a sign that everything is working as it should, I want to use this as an opportunity to explore what our relationship with CAPS is now and how that has changed over the years.

I get the sense today that many Stanford students — especially those from marginalized communities, activists or both — are less likely to trust CAPS than are other students. Why? Students may distrust CAPS due to leftover sentiment from the 2015 mental health movement on campus in which CAPS was perpetually (and at times, rightly) portrayed as inefficient, incompetent and under-resourced. Students may distrust CAPS due to their own individual negative experiences or the negative experiences of their friends and communities. Or, students may distrust CAPS due to its unreliable degree of transparency and the disconnect student communities see between the services they receive and the public relations communications of the organization.

To give CAPS some credit, students at Stanford rarely perceive CAPS as an organization — we are more likely to view it through the singular lens of a service we are entitled to. As such, the usual organizational problems (communication errors, bureaucracy, paperwork, decentralization, budgeting and dependency, hiring and pay, turnover rate) are invisible to us. Ron Albucher said as much, albeit vaguely, in his open letter published in the Daily last year. If all students see are a set of outcomes — bad individual experiences, low numbers of specialists knowledgeable about queer/trans issues, race and class — with no information to give them context, we fill in the gaps ourselves. We assume that the organization is populated by a host of incompetent, untrained and otherwise uncaring therapists that do not take students seriously, conclude “fuck CAPS” and look elsewhere for organizations that can treat us better. Distrust breeds distrust, and before we know it, 40 percent of our student body refuses to use a resource that many of us desperately need.

To clarify, I still believe that Stanford’s mental health services are lacking. Marginalized students continue to be underrepresented and under-serviced, and students living with mental illnesses receive varying levels of support from the institutions that ought to do more. Yet, high levels of distrust mask the fact that CAPS is continually making changes when it can and is constrained by factors outside of its control. For example, lack of funding for clinicians heavily influences the high turnover rate and the hiring of new therapists, especially the specialists our communities need. The prohibitive cost of living in the Bay Area, coupled with the potential gain of starting private practices, means that many therapists take their services elsewhere. This drying-up of the hiring pool then forces temporary hires that help alleviate long wait times but leave marginalized students hurting, even as CAPS casts its net as widely as it can to fill these crucial gaps in its staff.

Does this completely vindicate CAPS? No — the failure to transparently communicate these deeper problems in favor of presenting a positive image leaves much to be desired, and CAPS has a ways to go with cultural competence training for all its clinicians. However, it may be that some of our student distrust of these services is unwarranted. Given the times ahead, I’ll risk sounding cliché to tell you: Please go to CAPS.


Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' stanford.edu – she loves messages!

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