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Wait times at CAPS to schedule initial assessments extend for over a month. Credit: Samantha Turner

Some students seeking appointments with Counseling and Psychological Services counselors this semester have faced wait times as long as one month.

Students said they found the long waits to be an additional source of stress. CAPS Director of Integrated Care Initiatives Batsirai Bvunzawabaya said about 70% of students who call for an initial appointment are able to schedule it within five days, though there are sometimes delays in accessing this kind of appointment. 

Factors affecting how easily a student is able to schedule regular appointments with a CAPS therapist include student availability and whether they have identity-related preferences regarding the therapist with whom they want to meet, Bvunzawabaya said.

Bvunzawabaya said students should understand that even with these delays, they can also choose to walk into the CAPS office, call for 24-7 support, or attend Let’s Talk — a program that offers drop-in confidential conversations with counselors at various locations around campus. 

“We worry that a student who's in crisis or needing immediate support will feel that there is nothing available for them, as they hear stories from their friends or things like that. But that's actually not the case. A student can actually be seen immediately anytime we're open and even after, as well, because we have the 24/7 access," Bvunzawabaya said.

College senior Giselle Abreu was one of these students who used the CAPS walk-in service after being told that she would not be able to schedule an initial appointment with a counselor for one month.

Abreu called CAPS in early November for the first time because she felt “at the end of [her] line” dealing with stress. When Abreu spoke with the receptionist, however, she was told that the earliest she could come in for an appointment would be Dec. 6.

“Being on the phone and hearing that you're not going to be able to meet with anyone for a month is the most discouraging thing in the world,” she said. 

The receptionist mentioned the CAPS walk-in services, Abreu said, and she decided to go. After waiting for an hour, she met with a clinician who offered to schedule an appointment earlier than Dec. 6 with him.

“Why is it that I'm getting told that I can't meet with anyone for a month, but if you actually go and make that walk down to Market Street, and you meet with somebody, they can get it fixed in a heartbeat?” she said.

Abreu said although she was glad she was able to work out a visit to CAPS, she worried about other students who might be discouraged from using other CAPS services after experiencing long wait times.

“I can't even imagine if it was somebody who's in my position and wasn't able to get that appointment — just because you're already at this point where you're on the precipice and you're not sure what to do,” Abreu said. 

Though Engineering first year Emma Dreispiel was able to schedule an initial appointment with a CAPS psychologist quickly, she faced a wait of more than one month to secure an appointment with a regular therapist that she could meet with throughout the semester.

Dreispiel, an international student from Colombia, met with the CAPS psychologist in September to seek help with managing anxiety as she adapted to life at Penn and in the United States. She added that she had hoped CAPS would be able to provide her with support and strategies to manage her mental health since her family is far away, and many of her Penn friends are also dealing with the adjustment to college life.

The psychologist she met with told her that in a week, she would be connected to a therapist with whom she could meet regularly. Driespiel said that she heard nothing from CAPS, however, until two weeks later, when they called her with a list of outside referrals to contact, who may or may not be accepting new patients. 

Though she was contacted by a therapist a week later, the earliest appointment she could get was Nov. 11. — more than a month after her initial assessment in September. 

Dreispiel said that the wait has been rough, especially after she recently experienced a car accident and a concussion. Though her visits to Penn Benjamins, a student-run peer counseling service, were helpful, she said they didn’t replace therapy.

College sophomore Rachel Norman said that she met regularly with a CAPS counselor last year, but was later referred by the counselor to an outside therapist for long-term counseling. However when her health insurance policy changed, she tried to return to CAPS in early November and faced a wait time of over a month.

Norman said that she still took the December appointment, but that the wait time is not ideal. She added that for first-time CAPS users, it might be particularly discouraging.

“I feel like they would probably just get frustrated and be like, ‘Well, my problems are now. Why should I wait a month?’” Norman said. 

Norman said that while she ultimately has had positive experiences with the people she has interacted with at CAPS, the wait times are an issue.

“I think everyone at CAPS is great,” Norman said. “I appreciate them, and I’m glad they exist. I just think they could do with hiring some more people.”

Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé said there is a misconception that the only way to receive help from CAPS is through scheduling an initial assessment. However, he said, services like Let’s Talk and walk-in hours are often more accessible and helpful than students realize. 

“An interesting statistic we've learned is that for every three students who consult with our Let's Talk counselors, two of them actually leave the session — which is a brief, 30-minute, very focused session — stating, ‘I'm so glad I came. I actually don't think I need to schedule an assessment,'” Dubé said.

As the end of the semester approaches, Bvunzawabaya said CAPS will be shifting the services it offers — focusing on “immediate support” rather than initial appointments. Dubé also encouraged students facing long waits to use the walk-in or Let's Talk services to connect with CAPS counselors.

“'There's really no reason for you to wait because, clearly, something is upsetting you, right? There's a specific level of distress that you need to honor. Why don't you come in? Don't wait until the assessment. Come in, see someone, and you can be surprised about how helpful that initial spontaneous encounter may be," Dubé said.