Over the years, Stony Brook University’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) has periodically sent out internal satisfaction surveys to students assessing their feedback. But in an interview on Nov. 30, Allilsa Fernandez, the founder of the Peer Mental Health Alliance (PMHA), said that these surveys were not enough.
Fernandez, a senior psychology major, took issue with the fact that these surveys did not evaluate students’ awareness of available resources. She also criticized CAPS for not doing everything in its power to support PMHA and other student-led mental health groups.
Ahmed Belazi, the director of Planning and Staff Development for Stony Brook University, said that the surveys they have sent out were meant to evaluate student well-being as a whole, which encompasses mental health. He added that sending out too many surveys could lower response rates. “We’ve seen response rates as high as 25 percent for some surveys, and then there are some surveys that get response rates as low as one percent.”
Julian Pessier, the director of CAPS, said that the organization pays a lot of attention to student feedback through means other than just surveys, including through open forums and programs.
“Our first priority is to find out how students perceive the services,” Pessier said. “A lot of our work in the past couple of years has been on providing more ways for students to access our services, because we’re aware it’s a large, busy campus, and access is really one of the most important things that we’ve heard about and work continuously to improve.”
Ruth Hernandez Montiel, a senior psychology major and the president of Active Minds, another mental health awareness group on campus, agreed with Fernandez, stating that there should be surveys evaluating student awareness of resources.
“A survey to assess student’s awareness of mental health resources is a great idea and I especially think commuter students are often times the ones who may not be as aware of the available resources vs. residential students,” Montiel wrote in an email.
“We’re always open to ideas about surveys,” Belazi said. “This year Disability Support Services and Counseling Psychological services started a participatory reaction research group, and so what that group might end up doing is making recommendations on what are some things they’d be interested in researching and assessing. They may recommend that we do sort of a service utilization survey, or a service awareness survey, or some other type of perspective endorsement survey, and we would be more than happy to put things like that into sort of the cost benefit mix.”
Aside from the surveys, Fernandez and other members of her club would like to implement peer-based counseling for mental health-related issues. These such programs, in which students discuss their social and emotional issues with other students, are currently available at other New York state schools including University at Albany and SUNY Potsdam.
Montiel raised concerns about receiving this type of counseling from students who lack professional training.
“One of my biggest worries in this kind of situation is ‘what if I say something I shouldn’t and I make them feel worse,’” she wrote in an email.
Pessier said that CAPS is currently researching options for peer support.
“It is something that is growing in counseling centers, there’s a lot that goes into it.”
Fernandez said that earlier this semester, CAPS was not supportive of a program they ran called “The History of Mental Health Stigma,” because they thought it might be triggering.
“We can’t be afraid of being out there,” she said. “We can’t be playing it safe. Students are dying! Even at Stony Brook.”
“Student concerns in any form that they reach me, or that we solicit them, are taken incredibly seriously, it’s the most important thing to us,” Pessier said. “Our trust with this community is utmost, to us. Every student that reaches out to us to want to discuss these things is responded to.”
Azaina Muzavar, a senior biochemistry major and the secretary for PMHA, wrote over Facebook Messenger that CAPS has been supportive in terms of providing resources, such as flyers, and that PMHA has collaborated on events with CAPS.
“No system is perfect and there is always room for improvement,” she wrote. “The system that is designed and implemented for student mental health in Stony Brook definitely needs amendments.”
Montiel also gave her support to CAPS, adding that budget restraints could be the cause of some problems mentioned by Fernandez. “I know the director of CAPS, he is a great person who loves his job and really cares about the wellbeing of us students.”
In an email following her interview, Fernandez said Danielle Merolla, the assistant director for Outreach and Community Based Interventions, reached out for a meeting with her to discuss CAPS. She also wrote that Pessier expressed interest in discussing peer-mentoring programs.
“We hope Stony Brook gets more involved with mental health and creates a better bridge to resources that students may need,” Fernandez wrote in an email. “Peer Mental Health Alliance can only do so much without a budget. We need departments with a budget to advocate for mental health as well in order to eradicate mental health stigma. We are doing our part but we can only do so much alone.”