Guest Column by Leah Geoghegan | An ongoing conversation

· February 7, 2014, 12:50 pm

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A fight worth fighting

Today, we wanted to devote some of those words to those of us who have fought mental illness and those who may still be fighting it. We want to urge any of you who need help to seek it, whether in the form of CAPS, an outside therapist, or a trusted friend or parent. Finally, we — along with many of the people who have shared their stories on this page today — want you to know that this is a battle that doesn’t have to be fought alone.

I am not a professional on mental illness, nor will I pretend to be one, but I am a senior nursing student who takes pride in my profession and my potential to improve the lives of others. It is with this intention that I find the strength to open up about my struggles dealing with loss and the limited resources offered through the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) here on Penn’s campus.

My story begins last year when I spent the afternoon shadowing my clinical instructor in the HUP Emergency Department. While in the ED, I witnessed my first code. To my horror, I identified the patient as one of my good friends. Bound by medical privacy laws, I spent that night alone with my thoughts, not knowing if she had survived. I received a call about her death the next day.

As the Penn community mourned her loss, I grieved along with them. At first, I tried to handle the situation on my own. However, as time passed and the university slowly began to recover from this tragedy, I did not. I isolated myself from friends, slept constantly and could not keep down any food. By spring break of last year, I had unintentionally lost 12 pounds. At this point, my friends and family noticed that I needed help and suggested I go to CAPS.

Kindly put, my experience with CAPS was not ideal. During my first visit, my therapist encouraged me to start on medication. I was offended by this suggestion as it felt like a quick fix for a deeply complex problem that really needed to be discussed. Despite my initial aversion, I continued my sessions; though I did not receive the coping strategies I sought. After 3 disappointing meetings, I decided—without notice — to skip a CAPS appointment. I never received a call from CAPS to question my missed appointment. Almost a year later, this statement still enrages me. It may seem like I am overreacting, but to a person who is struggling — a phone call reaching out shows that you care. I had fought an internal battle of pride and denial to finally agree to therapy. Their lack of follow-up made me feel like my struggles didn’t matter. Since then, I have not returned to CAPS.

My point is not to discredit CAPS, but to bring attention to issues with the current system that are in need of immediate improvement. The recurring complaint about CAPS is that the waitlist to see a counselor is too long for people in need. I have had friends fake suicidal thoughts to get in to see a counselor faster than 3 weeks. As a nursing student who has taken care of mental health patients, I know this delay in care can negatively affect patient outcomes.

If the University encourages students to utilize a resource, they should guarantee that it is reliable, effective and sensitive to the unique needs of each person. Given the recent deaths across campus, I hope the university takes the time to reevaluate their current system. It not just reaching out in the moment that counts, but maintaining an ongoing conversation with students. It is going the extra mile to show students that you care about them and that they are not alone.

Leah Geoghegan is a senior in Nursing from Westfield, N.J. Her email address is leahge@nursing.upenn.edu.

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