As a first-year student at Penn, I have had so many amazing new experiences and opportunities this year. I met new people, joined new clubs, and attended various social events. However, for me, this year also ended with hardships I never expected to encounter. I lost both my father and grandmother within two months and experienced unimaginable levels of grief. Trying to find a way to cope with the overwhelming cloud of feelings I had never felt before, I turned to the organization I had always heard suggested and praised by Penn faculty and staff: Counseling and Psychological Services.
After talking with my residential advisor and succumbing to the wishes of my mother, I decided to stop by for drop-in hours. A 40-minute wait later, I finally met with a counselor. Sharing my story, I tearfully explained everything that had happened in the past two months. Expecting some form of comfort, I was shocked when he simply asked, “What do you want to do?”
What he had failed to mention was that this was not a real counseling session, but rather a form of consultation that involved unfairly subjecting me to a tearful recounting of my grief. I replied that I was looking for someone to talk to – someone who has dealt with grief and could talk me through what I was feeling. He then told me that April was a supposedly busy month with almost no availability. My grief had to be put on hold because CAPS did not have the time.
Looking further, he saw that there was only one availability left at 10 a.m. on Thursday with an intern, and proceeded to ask if I was okay with our sessions being recorded so she could show it to her supervisor. Internally, I was not content in the slightest with my grief being a trial run for an intern, but I still said yes because I had promised myself to approach CAPS with an open mind. The same cloud of grief that I had hoped would be alleviated followed me back to my dorm as another prominent feeling added to the mix: disappointment.
Despite this continued disappointment, I decided to try and reach out one more time. I did my own research on the CAPS website and emailed four counselors who fit the criteria of being people of color specializing in grief. I explained my circumstances in the email and expressed that I really hoped to talk with them soon, listing my available times. My disappointment only continued with the responses.
Two of the four counselors responded by saying they were unavailable to help me and to just call the front desk. Counselor three, the counselor my sister saw after our father’s death and recommended to me, originally did not reply. After a follow-up email, she finally responded, apologizing for not getting back to me sooner as she saw I had a scheduled appointment with the intern. She also mentioned she prefers not to talk to family members as it makes things simpler. Counselor four was the only one who gave me any availability or hope of talking to someone. However, her next availability was 15 days from my initial request. At this point, frustration was also added to my cloud of negative emotions.
One person got back to me with actual availability, and the rest merely directed me to the front desk. What about my circumstances was so unimportant? Why was my grief transferred to the front desk? Why could I not seem to get the immediate help I sought out? I didn't want to go to the drop-in hours again, as I did not want to talk to someone inexperienced with grief. I did not want to confide in someone who would tell me to wait 15 days or ask me “what I want to do” with the loss of family. I wanted someone who could get to know me and my story and help me through what I was feeling, something I know was definitely not too much to ask for, especially at such a prestigious and well-resourced institution.
In my experience with Penn’s CAPS, I definitely did not receive the help I hoped for. As an organization meant to aid and support students with their mental health and well-being, CAPS needs to have better immediate services. Through my encounter with CAPS, I was made to feel like my feelings of grief should be put on hold until availability opened up. That should never be the case. Despite my situation and the urgency I displayed, CAPS did not give me the help I hoped for. Rather, I was met with unavailabilities and long waits, leaving me disappointed and greatly disheartened. CAPS needs to improve on its immediate services. It needs to be more sympathetic towards individuals that have lost a loved one. Thankfully I was able to find help from an outside source, but what if CAPS had been my last straw?
BELINDA KUMI is a Wharton first year studying management and finance from Roswell, GA. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.