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Credit: Lizzy Machielse

Penn's School of Dental Medicine was one of the first schools to implement the Counseling and Psychological Services' program of embedding clinicians in schools to make mental health resources more accessible for students. But despite efforts by administrators to improve the system, Dental students still say they face obstacles in utilizing the services.

Dental School administrators decided to offer weekend hours in order to alleviate student accessibility concerns this fall. Previously, the CAPS clinician was available for two hours on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons. Now, however, Wednesday afternoon hours have been replaced with Saturday morning hours to accommodate scheduling concerns, according to Dental School Associate Director for Student Life Margaret Yang.

The embedded system, which most recently was implemented for both graduate and undergraduate students in the Wharton School, aims to overcome issues that have historically prevented students from seeking help when needed.

Despite the shift in hours, however, students cite their packed schedules, peer stigma, and the fact that the physical CAPS space in the Dental School is completely visible to the outside as roadblocks for student use.

Yang said she hoped the weekend hours would alleviate concerns about convenience and confidentiality by providing time when schedules are more open, and when fewer people are in the buildings. On the weekend, too, there is space to move to more confidential rooms.

For the other two days of the week, CAPS accessibility remains an issue for some students.

Second-year Dental student Kristen Leong said Tuesday and Thursday CAPS sessions are currently held in the Schattner Center, which Leong described as a “glass fishbowl.” While films cover the windows, its location above the front door makes it easy to see who is leaving, entering, and waiting for CAPS services. 

“It’s a huge invasion of privacy,” Leong said. “I’m personally not a fan of where it is located, so I would never use those services.” 

Credit: Sophia Dai

Peer stigma also prevents students from utilizing CAPS services, Leong added. 

“No matter how much we talk about de-stigmatizing mental health, there’s still the whole, ‘Wow. They went to see CAPS,’” Leong said.

Third-year Dental student Elaf Saeed expressed similar concern. 

“We’re expected to always be mentally strong,” Saeed said. "A lot of my classmates don’t want to be seen as weak or that they can’t handle anything.”

The Dental School's intense curriculum of academic and professional work, which includes exams, lectures, and clinicals, offers limited time to visit the school's CAPS office, according to Saeed. She said her typical day runs from from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., and that students must request time to even go to Student Health Service. 

“Dental education is arguably the toughest of all the professional school programs,” Penn Dental's Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Faizan Alawi said. “I understand the stress they’re going through.” 

He said the administration has attempted to give students extra days off this year within reason and this year's curriculum changes were not made “in a vacuum.” 

But Leong said the changes to CAPS hours are being used to avoid larger structural issues contributing to poor mental health among Dental students. 

“Faculty and staff punt the issue to CAPS rather than addressing the root of the anxiety and stress that students feel,” Leong said.

CAPS began installing counselors in private offices within graduate schools in 2015, starting with the School of Veterinary Medicine. The Dental School became the second to implement this embedded model in 2016, followed by the the Law School and the Perelman School of Medicine.

CAPS utilization increased from 12 percent to 17 percent across all graduate schools between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 academic years as of February 2018, according to Miles Owen — who at the time was the president of the Graduate and Professional School Assembly. Owen also reported that the Dental School CAPS utilization alone nearly doubled in the 2017-18 year.