CAPS is Only the First Step

OpinionStaff Op-Ed

Arlene Banuelos / The Triton

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Content Warning: This article concerns personal experience and narrative of self-harm, anxiety, and depression.

When I had my first panic attack in college, I thought that I was dying. I felt the air stifle and I could feel myself suffocating. Instead of employing useful strategies to address the anxiety, I felt the cuts dig into my wrist and I cried when I realized what had happened.

This is not to say that I was experiencing something I’d never felt before, but this was the first time at UC San Diego that I felt unsafe within the walls that were supposed to keep me away from harm.

Before I continue, I’d like to make something clear. This piece is in no way intended to sing the praises of the mental health support offered on campus. But I intend to share my experience in the hope that it sheds clarity on how Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) supports students.

Speaking personally, mental health disorders generally fester long before students go to university. I know for a fact that my depression and anxiety were codified into my life well before my first year at UCSD. I also know that many students do not seek help before they move in alone into their college dormitory. Sometimes, they don’t even know that they need help. And as a result, when the godawful panic attack sets in, students are left alone to fend for themselves.

I was not initially receptive to help when my friends suggested that I go to therapy. I knew it was hard for them, watching helplessly on the sidelines when I lay motionless in my bed or moped around the suite all day. Even so, I felt offended — I felt weak even admitting that maybe I needed to find support outside of the support I gave myself. But on one such day, it felt particularly difficult to pull myself out of bed and my friends came back bearing brochures of the help offered at CAPS and urged me to seek help for the internal struggle that I had harbored for so long.

When I first started going to CAPS, the winter quarter of my first year at UCSD, I was not particularly enamored with the therapist that was assigned to me. His personality clashed with mine and I could feel that his laid-back and soft-spoken demeanor directly contrasted my direct, rough character. Of the 20 sessions I have had with him, I have spent at least half of them simply reporting the state of my life and attempting to address, with him, how to best solve the issues that arose every single meeting.

I was often frustrated in therapy. I never felt like I was making any progress because it seemed like something new would go wrong every week. I struggled every meeting to articulate my inner turmoil to my therapist. He had diagnosed me with Bipolar II disorder at first, but after a couple of sessions, he continually suggested I consider the possibility of borderline personality disorder. It was a little comforting knowing the words that could identify and acknowledge the symptoms that I exhibited. I felt a little less crazy. I felt a bit more validated.

I got worse over the summer, specifically right after I went home to visit family. I started hallucinating and my panic attacks rendered me completely paralyzed as I felt myself crashing into the walls of my room. I felt myself tremoring, hyperventilating, and dreaming to an excessive degree. My dreams lingered long after I awoke, and they were terrifying nightmares that haunted my days. I continued therapy more regularly, and proceeded to take medication.

Even with the help that CAPS has offered me, I know it is not quite enough. The underlying tone of my sessions is the chilling notion that I can’t seek help there forever. With the severity of my symptoms, my therapist always asks if I will consider moving off-campus to receive more frequent help.

CAPS lacks the resources to provide consistent, adequate therapy to all students. Almost three years ago, the UC Student Association gave UCSD CAPS a C+ rating, citing lack of accessibility, outreach on campus, and space for group therapy. However, in comparison to the other UCs, UCSD had one of the highest ratings. The mental health support across the UC system seems lackluster at best. In response to the 2016 rating, the UC Office of the President brought on 85 new clinicians to address student needs at CAPS. The plan was to increase the funding for mental health services by $18 million this school year.

CAPS at UCSD is nowhere near perfect, nor will it ever be. I’m seeking help off-campus now with a new therapist. Because of my experience at CAPS, I have a better idea of how to speak about myself and take ownership of what I want to work on during the session. I see my new therapist at least once a week, and I am starting to work with a new psychiatrist to manage my medication.  

My mental health still waxes and wanes. Coping with the diagnosis of borderline personality disorder broke me for a week and I am still getting used to the tremor from my medication. I wouldn’t say that my experience at CAPS was amazing. It is as its rating suggests — it is passing. But, because it is the first line of defense for so many students seeking help, it helps orient and point students in a direction for better treatment.

I know the wait times are long. I know how hard it is coping with symptoms and feeling like there’s no way out. Treating mental illness takes energy, care, and love that doesn’t come easily in just a few weeks.

But, I’ve learned that CAPS is not a solution. CAPS is meant to be a bridge. It is a first step that motivates us to continue taking care of ourselves.

Ella Chen is the Editor-in-Chief of The Triton.