By Elise Schoening
Nestled in the hallway of Eickhoff Hall is room 107 — home to the office for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).
Many students at the College who are in possession of a meal plan will pass by this office at least three times day — on their way to breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, most students don’t stop to take advantage of the counseling services offered just outside the dining hall.
Perhaps many students don’t know that the office is even there or if they do, are ashamed to admit to their mental health struggles and seek help.
Whatever the reason, the CAPS office only sees roughly 12 percent of the student body each year, according to Program Director Mark Forest.
On a campus that has seen an alarming number of deaths by suicide in recent years, such a low rate of mental health treatment is worrisome.
“Too many students aren’t comfortable seeking counseling services and I’m here to tell them how wrong they are,” said sophomore technology/pre-engineering education major Gregory Dolan, who currently works as a peer educator for the CAPS program. Dolan said that he went to the CAPS office last semester to receive counseling services.
“If you’re a student who needs help, never be afraid to ask for it,” Dolan said. “It is life-changing, and I owe my all to the CAPS staff at TCNJ.”
What many may not know about the counseling services offered at the College is that they are completely free and open to all currently-enrolled students.
Tasked with treating all these students, however, is a surprisingly small staff. The College’s CAPS program has seven full-time licensed clinicians and a part-time psychiatrist, according to Forest.
In addition to the professionals on staff, CAPS also works with the College’s graduate counseling program. These graduate students are able to put their education to use and treat some of the younger students in need of counseling. In such cases, the graduate students always work under the direct supervision of a licensed counseling professional, Forest said.
“Our goal at CAPS is to provide the best services to the most students that we can,” he said. “All students who request services at CAPS are either offered services directly at CAPS or are referred to local community providers or the TCNJ Clinic depending on their needs. We have not had a waiting list at CAPS for the past couple of years.”
According to Forest, there is no specified number of counseling sessions offered to students. Everyone that comes to their office is evaluated and a unique plan of action is developed to cater to their specific needs.
The CAPS professionals are trained to address a variety of mental health issues, ranging from depression to anxiety to eating disorders. While the CAPS office offers both group and individual counseling sessions for these issues, Forest explained that group counseling is the preferred treatment method because it allows the center to aid more students at a time and provides students with direct support from their peers.
In many cases, students get more out of the group dynamic than they would in an individual counseling setting, Forest said.
“Many people experience mental health difficulties, but few speak openly about them to people they don’t know well,” according to the American Psychological Association’s website. “Oftentimes, you may feel like you are the only one struggling — but you’re not. It can be a relief to hear others discuss what they’re going through and realize you’re not alone.”
CAPS has integrated this philosophy into its program and currently offers 17 group counseling sessions that focus on the wide variety of mental health issues prevalent on college campuses.
Senior psychology major Gianella Todaro has visited the CAPS office on a weekly basis for the past three years and encourages her peers to do the same.
“My experience with CAPS’s group counseling services has been wonderful,” Todaro said. “Knowing that once a week I have a safe space where I can go to share personal struggles has helped me through my years at TCNJ… It’s really nice to share things I’ve been struggling with and feel supported and understood.”
According to Forest, there are no restrictions on group counseling so students like Todaro are able to participate in several sessions during their time at the College.
When a student’s needs do not align with any of the group sessions available, CAPS will offer individual counseling sessions to the student instead. Due to limited resources, CAPS is only able to offer brief individual counseling. Therefore, students seeking a more long-term and individual treatment are often referred to other counseling services in the local area, Forest said.
Because CAPS cannot directly treat every student at the College, the program has designated peer educators to spread the message of mental health to rest of the student body.
While the professionally-trained CAPS counselors are hard at work in the office, the peer educators are out and about on campus, working to raise awareness for mental health issues and the resources available to any and all struggling students on campus.
Senior psychology major Victoria Michels became a peer educator her freshman year and is now finishing her third year in the program. Mental health and the rising suicide rate among college students are personal issues.
“Losing a friend and teammate to suicide freshman year solidified my choice that I wanted to be a mental health advocate on campus,” Michels said. She and the other peer educators put on a number of workshops and events throughout the year to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and provide their peers with the help they need but may be afraid to ask for.
“It is our hope that through these events, students can recognize that the TCNJ community is a safe place to speak about mental health and that there are infinite resources available to them,” Michels said.
The CAPS office in Eickhoff Hall may not seem like much from the outside, but it’s clear that the small team of professionals and students working just on the other side of the door are doing their best to care for as many students as possible.