School is in session, and students have settled in. Internships have started, clubs are in full swing, and midterms are approaching.
These can be frenzied and overwhelming stages of life. It’s not easy, but that’s OK.
“When students come to college, they are moving away from their team of support—their parents, their counselors, their teachers, their religious leaders,” says psychologist William Alexander, director of CAPS. “It’s a stressful time in your life and demand is going to be hard, and you’re better off with a team.”
For very ordinary, healthy, and good reasons, Alexander continues, “You should put CAPS on that team.”
Taking care of yourself
CAPS, located on the first floor of 3624 Market St., with a crew of social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and nurse practitioners, offers free and confidential professional counseling services, now with expanded hours.
The majority of students who utilize CAPS’ services, Alexander says, are facing academic stress, anxiety because of their workload, or have family or relationship problems.
“There are issues related to their age, their location in an elite school, and the development process,” he says. “As a result, [students] don’t engage necessarily in long-term treatment, but they need a quick response, and in a semester’s time, they can get what they are looking for.”
For students experiencing very serious mental illnesses, Alexander says CAPS has an “incredibly sophisticated treatment with a very excellent staff. Major depressions and psychotic disorders and things like that all happen within this age group; it’s when they blossom.”
The CAPS website provides information about how to set up a consultation, and also about self-care, with tips on improving concentration and time management, as well as breathing exercises and a wellness checkup. The CAPS’ after-hours line is listed as well, which allows students with an urgent psychiatric need to call CAPS and speak with a clinician directly.
In addition, CAPS, part of the Division of the Vice Provost for University Life, offers a variety of group and workshop sessions that feature programs like the “Returning Students Group,” for those reintegrating into college life after a leave of absence, “Cultivating Calm,” and “Mindfulness Meditation.”
Joselyn Salazar, a senior studying mathematical economics, and also a member of CAPS’ Student Advisory Board, or CAPSAB, says she does yoga to unwind.
“Being at Penn and being a Penn student is a challenging task,” Salazar says. “There are a lot of pressures, but taking some measures—whether it’s therapy or a CAPS drop-in group, or something else—to take care of yourself is so important.”
Finding a community
CAPS supports and advises the 20-plus student organizations on campus that focus on mental health and wellness. Groups include Active Minds, Reach A Peer Helpline, Penn Benjamins, Project HEAL, CogWell, Penn Reflect, and TableTalk.
“It’s important for students to find their niche group, to find a community where you feel supported and loved,” says Kathryn DeWitt, a senior psychology major. “I am impressed about the number of students who have started up mental health groups on campus just since 2014.”
DeWitt knows firsthand how important it is to find support. During her early days at Penn, she couldn’t help falling into what she describes as “imposter syndrome.”
“You feel everyone else around you belongs there but you don’t,” she says.
In addition, she says the competitive nature of such an elite university was difficult for her to grasp.
“People were always competing to see who has it worse off,” she says. “They’d say, ‘Oh I have three midterms this week,’ and someone else would say, ‘Well I have four.’”
DeWitt took a leave of absence after freshman year, and when she came back to Penn, she got involved with Active Minds. Started more than a decade ago by Alison Malmon, then a Penn student, the national nonprofit is dedicated to changing the conversation about mental health on college campuses.
Now, DeWitt leads Penn Wellness, the relatively new umbrella organization that works to intertwine all the student wellness groups. Every day, she’s helping students connect with the best resources and disseminating information from CAPS.
The efforts by CAPS and the student groups, DeWitt says, as well as other initiatives by Penn, such as its Mental Health Task Force, have prompted a noticeable “culture shift” on campus throughout the years.
“It’s changed a lot since I was a freshman,” she says. “I hear people say, ‘I went to CAPS and it was great.’ Seeing that change over time at Penn has been incredible.”
The change in culture is important, Alexander says, because “it shifts the topic from illness to wellness, from negative to positive, it makes it something you can celebrate and be involved in and be excited about, not something you have to be afraid of and tiptoe around.”
Rohini Singh, a Ph.D. student in evolutionary biology, got involved with CAPS’ Student Advisory Board about three years ago. A friend from her department served as CAPSAB chair, and was proactive in talking about mental health issues.
“Coming from India, my family has had issues where we don’t talk openly about mental health, and it was a barrier for me at first to say that I needed help,” says Singh. “She made me aware that it’s OK to not be OK, and to talk about it.”
CAPSAB is very diverse, and with intent. In Singh’s case, as a graduate student, she brings a unique and necessary perspective to the group.
“Grad students live a very different lifestyle from undergrads,” she says. “Some people are older, younger, have children, or are married. They are more disperse and isolated. The social pressures are different.”
Graduate student input led CAPS to expand its hours this year—offering evening sessions through 7 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and Saturday options. Feedback from grad students was also a factor in CAPS placing staff within the Law, Medical, Vet, and Dental schools a couple days per week, to make access even easier.
CAPS also heads the popular I CARE trainings, which, during a three-hour workshop, help participants learn the signs of stress, distress, and mental health crisis that can affect college students.
Intended for any student, faculty, or staff member that is interested, I CARE has grown significantly since it first launched in 2014. Today, the program, which has trained at least 2,000 individuals, is required for the entire Penn Athletics and Student Registration and Financial Services staff, for resident assistants and graduate assistants, as well as a number of club leaders. The Penn Police has even requested a training just for their department.
“Two hallmarks of the training are that it provides a way to be able to listen and offers a lot of practice opportunities around that, and it gives you the tools to be able to intervene in a crisis situation around suicide,” explains Meeta Kumar, a psychologist and director of outreach and prevention at CAPS.
I CARE is different from other gatekeeper trainings, Alexander adds, in that it is customized for Penn students’ particularities, and led by CAPS professionals.
“You’re not just going to only learn some skills,” he says. “It’s an experience that’s going to be emotionally meaningful for you as a participant, too.”
CAPS also maintains one of the country’s largest training programs for social workers and psychologists at the master’s and doctorate levels. Kumar herself was trained at CAPS two decades ago. On a regular basis, these trainees do about 20 percent of the direct service at CAPS, furthering its reach.
What’s to come
This year, Penn will host The Steve Fund’s fourth daylong conference “Young, Gifted & @Risk” on Tuesday, Nov. 14. Held at Houston Hall, the symposium—the nation’s only conference focused on the mental health and emotional well-being of students of color—will attract higher education administrators, faculty, staff, both undergraduate and graduate students, family members, and mental health professionals from all over the U.S.
“Collectively, we’ll be thinking and talking about the social determinants of mental health for students around issues of feeling marginalized, not having a sense of belonging, and hate-based violence, to stigma related issues,” says Kumar. The program will include panels, speakers, and breakout sessions.
“What’s so important to us is really engaging people in dialogues, but also having opportunities to hear from experts from a variety of different disciplines and identity areas,” she says. “With that in mind, we’re hoping for a rich conversation throughout the day.”