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When a College sophomore, who wished to remain anonymous, started feeling anxious about his exam results last semester, he was hesitant to book an appointment with Penn’s Counseling and Psychological Services.

“I think a lot of Penn students have this mentality of ‘Oh, I’m really smart, I’m really confident, I should be able to solve my own problems,’” he said.

But after talking with a personal mentor and friend who has visited CAPS, he decided to give it a try. “I was feeling more and more overwhelmed, and thought that maybe I should follow my mentor’s advice, since she seemed much happier because she went,” the student noted.

The number of students seeking counseling at CAPS is currently the highest it has been in the last ten years, according to director William Alexander.

“In 2006, we were serving only 9.5 percent of the student population. This year, it’s over 13 percent,” Alexander said.

The prevalence of on-campus mental services nationwide may indicate that mental health among college students is steadily worsening.

“Every campus in this country is asking” why students are more stressed than ever, Alexander said. He explained that this rise can be attributed to several factors — scientific advances in psychotropic medication, a decrease in the stigma surrounding therapy and the hard-to-measure concept that “our world might actually be becoming more stressful to live in.”

However, addressing the mental health needs of over 25,000 undergraduate and graduate students can pose a challenge to a center that has the equivalent of 23 full-time clinicians.

“Our mission is not to be a mental health clinic,” Alexander said. “Our mission is to be an academic support center, helping students deal with anything that interferes with their studies. We can treat mental disorders, but we can also help you if you’re homesick or fighting with your roommate.”

CAPS has no official limit on the number of sessions a student can attend. Since July, 54 percent of all patients attended between one and five therapy sessions, according to Alexander. Only nine percent of its clients attend more than 25 sessions.

Alexander said that about one in every five students is referred to an outside private mental practice in Philadelphia. “We’re generalists here,” he said, noting that many of these referred students have specific issues — such as eating disorders — that could be better treated by a long-term specialist.

“I think that CAPS does great work in responding to emergency situations, but some anxiety needs also need to get addressed immediately,” the College sophomore said.

According to Alexander, CAPS’ goal is to schedule first-time appointments with new patients within a week of their first call. However, during the busier months of November and March or April, the average wait time for an initial appointment could be as long as three to four weeks. “It’s hard — for us, it’s just math,” he said.

While increased University funding has allowed CAPS to hire more clinicians and expand to two floors of office space, the center is funded by the Vice Provost’s Office for University Life, and is therefore affected by Penn’s current budget freeze, which will last until July. CAPS’ last staff expansion was in 2008.

Gregory Eells, the director of Cornell University’s counseling center, noted that Ivy League students face particularly strong pressure, but also may demand more from their campus counseling centers.

“Based on their socio-economic status, many students are used to immediate care,” he said.

Cornell’s counseling center —which serves approximately 21,000 students on its Ithaca campus — currently has a staff of 30 clinicians.

A College junior who also wished to remain anonymous has been visiting CAPS on-and-off since her freshman year.

“CAPS appeals more to people who already have experience seeking counseling,” she said.

While counseling centers such as those at Penn and Cornell devote significant resources to outreach and providing access to therapy services, it may not be possible for these centers to reach every student.

For example, both Penn and Cornell have seen student suicides in recent years.

“It’s not that they fall through the cracks — it’s that they actively avoid human connections,” Eells said.

Sometimes, however, these students have sought treatment at their on-campus counseling centers. “The second-guessing that happens after such a tragedy is pretty big,” Alexander said. “There’s always an examination of our processes and procedures. Most of the time, there’s not been a case where we’re in error.”

“It’s sad to say that when someone has serious intent to harm themselves, it’s hard to catch them,” Alexander added.

“Stigma is a big issue [that prevents people from seeking mental services],” the College junior said. “People don’t want to feel like they’re mentally ill.”

Pat Gainey, the Philadelphia regional director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, stressed the importance of all students knowing the appropriate protocol to report someone who may be in need of serious help. “Any student who has died of suicide gave some kind of warning, or at least had someone else who knew they were in trouble,” she said.

Gainey added that “people need to take responsibility when they see that. It’s a scary thing to insist that someone go in for a depression screen, but that’s what we need to do. We would never let any other disease linger like that.”

Eells believes the nature of the stigma toward mental health services has changed. “Now, it’s not like you would think less of me if I went to therapy — it’s that I would think less of myself,” he said.

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