What the therapists at UMich are getting wrong about mental health care

I have struggled with my mental health my entire life.

As a kid I started to feel really sad sometimes and I didn’t know why.

When I was about 8 years old, my parents gave me a royal blue iPod Nano. It had my dad’s music library – mostly dad rock and some 90’s stuff.

Among the choices was U2’s 1988 hybrid live/studio album rattles and buzzes. The album’s final song, a ballad titled “All I Want Is You,” is about love, heartbreak, and broken promises, things you don’t typically have much real experience of by the time you’re 8 years old. All I really understood about this ballad was that it was tragic.

When I used to dive into that inexplicably sad place, I’d listen to it over and over again. I can vividly remember sitting alone on a bus to summer camp, isolated from my friends, feeling apart and disconnected from myself and those around me – not knowing why, but just wanting to be alone.

All I Want Is You offered me catharsis and a way to explore, feel and embrace that darker side of me that I didn’t understand as a child but looking back I desperately needed it. When I wanted to be alone, the song gave me a place to hide and feel what I needed to feel; it has given me “a river in the dry, a port in the storm.”

As I got older I started to get scared. Sometimes it was debilitating; obsessive. There was one girl in high school in particular who, after rejecting me as my best friend at the time, made walking down the school hallways a terrifying experience. I was always panicking and was constantly trying to make it to my next class as quickly as possible so I wouldn’t accidentally walk past her.

Eventually it got to the point where it constantly felt like I had a huge hole in my stomach. It was the kind you get before a big gig or test, but I felt it almost every day.

At the end of my sophomore year of high school, I got into a big argument with my mom about something probably very stupid, and in the heat of the argument she suggested I see a therapist.

And in spite of her, I did it.

At my first session I was cautious. I wasn’t sure I would ever go on another date, but I actually ended up liking it. It was just talking to someone who made you feel understood and gave advice. It was like having a friend, the only difference was that you paid him.

So I continued for almost two years.

And it was lucky. High school was a tough time for me, as I’m sure many others were, but through good times and bad, my therapist was there for me and helped me take control of my mental health. She has also helped me through some of the deepest moments of my life. There were times when I was so depressed that these once a week sessions were really all I looked forward to.

At some point, however, it was time for me to leave the nest. I went to college and stopped seeing my therapist because I believed it was time for me to start my own business, a belief my therapist agreed with. I had improved my sanity, improved myself.

But I still struggle from time to time. I still go to this sad place. Earlier this year I contacted my therapist again. I wanted to meet her again, but more irregularly. She told me that due to the tremendous increase in demand for therapy caused by the pandemic, she was overbooked and unable to see me, and advised me to contact the University of Michigan Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

So I did.

For context, the CAPS process begins with a mental health history questionnaire, and then you schedule an initial consultation. It took me two weeks to get an initial consultation, which is sort of a repeat of the questionnaire. It was really just an appointment where someone would ask you questions about your history of mental health and therapy to understand how badly you need to be seen. They ask you if you have a history of violence, self-harm, substance abuse, etc.

During this consultation they will inform you that CAPS is not really therapy as students only attend 3.5 sessions on average and usually attend no more than five. Because of the pandemic, it’s not personal either; It’s done over the phone — you can’t use Zoom or FaceTime either. With this virtual form of advice, the many advantages of face-to-face communication are lost.

If you are still interested at this time you will be informed that they can make an appointment for you but the wait could be anywhere from three to six weeks depending on availability. I was still interested and thought that the inexplicable sadness I had been feeling might be reappearing at this point and that a session would be helpful.

About a month later I had my appointment, coincidentally in this sad place again. The therapist I was assigned to spent the first 15 minutes of the call talking to me about what he could offer me.

It was a strange and uncomfortable experience. There was very little personal connection and the therapist made it seem like they didn’t want me to open up; It was almost as if they were trying to convince me to seek advice elsewhere.

However, I have spoken openly about my problems. After more than a month of waiting I didn’t want to just hang up. I regaled her with details of the final exams and some social drama involving a friend of mine with whom I had a conflict. At one point I mentioned that I wanted my boyfriend to go away. The therapist stopped me and started interrogating me about whether or not I intended to kill my friend. It was pretty bizarre. It felt like they wanted to create problems that didn’t exist, especially when I stated in the questionnaire that I was just looking for someone to talk to, not crisis counseling.

After that, I felt too uncomfortable to open up any further. I asked the therapist to give me some resources that might help me find a therapist in Ann Arbor and ended the session. I have not made another appointment.

As someone who has experience with good therapy, it seems to me that CAPS kinda sucks. It’s really only there to help a small percentage of people with serious mental health issues who need crisis counseling. While this service is undeniably important, I doubt it provides the necessary advice due to its huge wait times. After six weeks, crisis counseling is too little too late.

I know the kind of therapy I had in high school was a privilege, but it wasn’t meant to be, and especially not at the University of Michigan, an institution with seemingly unlimited financial resources. I believe everyone can benefit from it, even those who don’t necessarily have problems. Studies have found that 21.6% of college students said depression was interfering with their studies, and 50% of college students said their mental health was below average or poor. Having someone to share all of your deep, dark secrets and feelings with, and the resulting catharsis, is incredibly healthy.

When you consider that the highest incidence of mental illness is in people between the ages of 18 and 24, a time that many people spend in college, the kind of therapy I had in high school — the “I’m just looking for someone for Talking to” Art — must be available at the university.

While I am fortunate to have an outside therapist in Ann Arbor if I wanted one, there are many students who rely on the resources provided by the university. If we want to live up to the claim of being the “Leaders and the Best”, we really need comprehensive counseling and psychological services – not a crappy crisis hotline with months of waiting.

Jared Dougall is an opinion columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

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