After the end of the fall semester, data from Swarthmore’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) confirms a trend administrators have become increasingly aware of—Swarthmore students use campus mental health services at exceptionally high rates, and the numbers are only growing.
While student use of CAPS has been climbing for several years, it skyrocketed in the fall 2015 semester, when 342 students used the service. In comparison, only 327 students used CAPS during the entire 2010-11 academic year. It is also a 12% increase over last fall’s numbers. If the same growth occurs during the spring 2016 semester, a record 475 students will have seen CAPS during the 2015-16 year—35% of the resident student body.
This exceeds the usage rates of Swarthmore’s peer schools and undergraduate universities across the country. From 2010-15, an average of 28% of Haverford’s students used their counseling and psychological services. Nationwide, only around 10% of college students use their institution’s mental health services over the course of the year, according to a 2014 survey from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors.
To meet this demand, CAPS employs ten qualified counselors, including its director, David Ramirez, and one administrative assistant. Normally, Ramirez said, CAPS hires an additional counselor as an independent contractor during the spring semester, when student demand is usually at its highest. This year, it hired one in September.
The cause of Swarthmore students’ high usage of CAPS remains unclear. An informal 2015 Phoenix poll found that a higher rate of Swarthmore students had felt frequently depressed over the past year than in national surveys, but the Institutional Research office’s 2015 enrolled students survey found that the rates were relatively the same, although they used the wording “very often” instead of “frequently.” The Institutional Research office denied a request for the same data for past surveys due to confidentiality requirements.
Lack of formal evidence aside, there are unquantifiable aspects of the Swarthmore experience that could contribute to an atmosphere of anxiety on campus. As noted in an informal Daily Gazette survey published earlier this year, the college has a reputation for academic intensity, and the campus is infamous for the prevalence of “misery poker” (a term for conversations where students attempt to one-up each other in having the best cause to be miserable) among students.
The anxiety and depression students feel can impact more than just their mental health. The pressure of the heavy workloads that Swarthmore students often take on can impact their physical health as well, said Noemí Fernández, student wellness program manager.
“[Students] can suffer emotionally from that, and that stress and anxiety often presents itself as physical symptoms. Some symptoms can include acute and chronic headaches, stomach aches, suppressed immune systems—which make you much more susceptible to viruses and bacteria, strep throat, flu, and colds,” Fernández said. “Getting your flu vaccine, working out, and eating well boosts your immune system and your body’s response to be able to deal and cope with stress and anxiety […] All of these things are interrelated. They do not exist in isolation.”
Though she acknowledged a widespread student perception that CAPS has unacceptably long waitlists later in the semester, Fernández pointed out that the waitlist is at most two weeks long, and exists only for a student’s initial evaluation session.
Further, she said, the kind of therapy CAPS provides is not the only option available to students seeking support for stress and anxiety. Students can also seek support from religious and spiritual life advisors, the drug and alcohol counselor, peer support programs like Speak 2 Swatties, deans who offer academic support, and many more staff members responsible for relating to students.
This tendency to use CAPS as the first line of support was also listed by Ramirez as a possible explanation for students’ increased usage of the service. As such, CAPS often refers students to other support outlets who may specialize in the area a student struggles in.
Ramirez also listed societal trends as reasons for CAPS’ rapid growth. Particularly, he noted the increasing acceptance of diagnosing mental health problems which before may have been written off as personality quirks. “We don’t really have eccentric people any more—we have sick people,” he said.
The current plan for CAPS is to finish the year hiring part-time contractors to meet demand, as it has done in the past. At the end of the year, the administration will review the numbers from both semesters and decide on whether to add more full-time positions. Though the numbers from this semester are remarkable, Ramirez said, making predictions can be difficult. He recalled an early-2000s CAPS study that attempted to project the growth of the service.
“[The prediction] wasn’t even close,” he said.
“Stress and anxiety can be exacerbated by the pressure that students put on themselves or the pressure that students feel from their community, from their family, from their professors, from anybody, to take on these incredibly heavy workloads,” Fernández said. “It is up to you as an individual student to prioritize, to reflect, and say what you value and what you want from your experience as a student here.”