Reform CAPS cuts ties with CAPS

Calling it off:

Reform CAPS ends relationship with CAPS administrators

Content warning: This story discusses suicide and mental health crises. For support, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

SESP second-year Max Byrne gazed out of the conference room window, watching people pass by. It was 40 minutes into Reform CAPS’ weekly meeting with Northwestern Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). Once the clock hit the 45-minute mark, Byrne knew what they had to do.

“We don’t feel like meeting with you guys going forward is productive,” Byrne told University administration. “We hope you guys continue to do the work that we have started here, and to listen to these student experiences that we’ve shared and in your own way – do what you think you can and should.”

Byrne stood up, pushed in their chair and walked out of the room. SESP second-year and Reform CAPS co-founder Genni Bogdanowicz followed, while Medill second-year Maddie Southwell gathered the stacks of printed student testimonies scattered across the table.

Reform CAPS co-founder Sahibzada Mayed, a McCormick and Communication third-year, was the last to leave. He looked at the other Reform CAPS members as they headed toward the door, avoiding eye contact with the three administrators in the room. It was officially over.

On March 7, 2022, the terminated its working relationship with CAPS Executive Director Garrett Gilmer, CAPS Clinical Director Shenay Bridges-Carter and Dean of Students Mona Dugo following a breakdown in communication after comments made by Reform CAPS members in a

After six months of meetings, University officials and Reform CAPS clashed on whether CAPS should acknowledge students it has harmed and held conflicting perspectives on procedural changes in mental health services.

To understand why Reform CAPS decided to end its relationship with University administration, North by Northwestern has examined the timeline of events that led to the walkout.

October 11, 2021

It started at 8:30 a.m. on a Monday. Members of Reform CAPS walked through the basement of Scott Hall to their first meeting with senior CAPS officials in a conference room near Dugo’s office.

In one hand, Bogdanowicz carried a Peets coffee cup. In the other, she carried eight hours worth of research compiled into a zine that would drive the conversation. It contained everything from CAPS’ referral database demographics to descriptions of student experiences from the

Across the conference table from the students were Gilmer, Bridges-Carter and Dugo.

“I think that it’s hard to have a trusting relationship with administration when you are coming from two very different positions,” Bogdanowicz told NBN in an exclusive interview after the end of Reform CAPS’ relationship with University officials.

“They have a lot of institutional power, and we’ve been harmed by the institutions they have power in,” she added.

Reform CAPS initiated conversations with CAPS to share student experiences and drive changes in mental health services on campus, Bogdanowicz and Mayed said. The group also wanted CAPS to be more transparent with the student body.

“We had a lot of conversations about misunderstandings about our processes, and then when [Bridges-Carter] and I would talk through how certain things happened, that seemed to be relieving to them or reassuring to them,” Gilmer told NBN. “But [Reform CAPS’] feedback to us is, ‘That’s not known to the student body. We don’t know that. Can you put that out there publicly for us?’”

During its meetings with CAPS, Reform CAPS brought up several issues, including the University’s use of police in crisis responses, high rates of student hospitalization and CAPS’ FAQ page.

“I think that it’s hard to have a trusting relationship with administration when you are coming from two very different positions … They have a lot of institutional power, and we’ve been harmed by the institutions they have power in.”

– Reform CAPS co-founder Genni Bogdanowicz

In mid November, after weekly Monday meetings with administration, Reform CAPS sat down with the Daily Northwestern to talk about CAPS and mental health at NU.

By Feb. 4, 2022, when the Daily published the article, both sides of the conference room table were beginning to question how aligned they really were.

February 4, 2022

When Dugo read the Daily article, she was met with criticism from students who had terrible experiences with CAPS. Some came from the Reform CAPS members she had been meeting with for months.

The importance of student experiences and feedback was part of the reason why Dugo, Gilmer and Bridges-Carter said they wanted to meet with Reform CAPS. They hoped that learning directly from students about what CAPS could do better would facilitate positive changes.

“We spent a lot of time in the first meeting and in subsequent meetings listening to student accounts. I followed their Instagram page, I continue to follow it,” Dugo said.

Dugo was surprised to see these criticisms raised without acknowledging the procedural reforms that administrators said occurred after five months of meetings.

When Gilmer arrived at Northwestern in 2020, he said the waitlist for students seeking therapy had more than 50 names. Today, Gilmer said there are only eight or nine. Mental health hospitalization rates and the use of police during crisis situations have also been reduced, he said.

These reforms have also not been cut and dry, according to Bridges-Carter. There are still many changes that CAPS’ senior administrators said they want to see. But amid struggles with staff retention and increased workloads for CAPS counselors, Bridges-Carter said CAPS’ priority must be the immediate care of the student body.

“I think that there’s a lot of things that get in the way of us making the type of headway on some of these projects that we’d like to make,” Bridges-Carter said. CAPS is also understaffed, with the listing only 24 staff members for the Evanston campus.

The administrators’ biggest fear was that the article could have a chilling effect that would prevent students from seeking help through CAPS, Gilmer said.

That week, the administrators rescheduled their meeting with Reform CAPS. They planned instead to reconvene the week of Feb. 21 to discuss the contents of the Daily article.

February 21, 2022

Reform CAPS had no intention of severing their ties with administration – until this meeting about the Daily article.

“The major concern that was brought up that I felt from their side is that they were seeing this Daily article as us attacking them,” Mayed said. “They were on a defensive mode, where they felt that this was a breach of our trust and our relationship together.”

To Mayed and Bogdanowicz, the concerns CAPS raised felt more like a PR problem that administrators needed to contain.

“There was this portion where they would treat us almost like a propaganda group,” Mayed said. “They saw us as spreading ‘negative’ experiences about CAPS, and that framing of positive and negative is really harmful because these are actual student experiences.”

Bogdanowicz’s frustration grew more potent as the meeting continued. It had been eight months since she co-founded Reform CAPS and four months since the group began meeting with administrators. Now, she felt that she was being talked down to and chastised.

“I think the main one was really framing the Daily article and all of our work as specifically targeting CAPS’s reputation and ruining that reputation,” Bogdanowicz said. “Somehow that we were the ones harming students, which felt … invalidating of the work that we had been doing.”

Rage. That was what Mayed felt sitting at the conference table and listening to the administrators.

“There are three stories that are publicly shared in that article very in-depth, and in our 90-minute meeting, none of those stories were explicitly mentioned by any of the administrators in the context of acknowledgement,” he said.

One of those stories was Mayed’s – his involuntary commitment order at the hands of CAPS.

“All of the administrators that day, none of them had the decency to bring that up even once in that meeting,” Mayed said. “We actually have the folks who have the institutional power and who inherited those systems sitting in front of [us], and they are just going to blab on about how some of their new systems aren’t being accurately represented.”

The Daily article was not the first time Dugo had heard Mayed’s story. They had shared it with her four months prior, during their first meeting. Dugo said she felt she had acknowledged the importance of Mayed’s story and that CAPS needed to do better.

“I really regret that that’s the takeaway, in whatever way that I contributed to that feeling I regret that because that’s not how I feel,” said Dugo. “I feel concerned that that was their experience, and I think we’ve really worked to try to change things.”

Reform CAPS members told the administrators that their interview with the Daily occurred shortly after their meetings began. Gilmer said he was more relieved to hear that the Daily article did not reflect Reform CAPS members’ current outlook about mental health services on campus.

Except, according to Mayed, it did. Mayed told NBN their statements in November “accurately represented” what Reform CAPS stands for.

As the distance grew between the priorities of Northwestern’s administration and Reform CAPS, members knew they never wanted to have a meeting like that ever again.

February 28, 2022

Reform CAPS canceled the Feb. 28 meeting with CAPS. Instead, the group met to consider if having these discussions was a productive use of its members’ time.

Meeting with Northwestern administration was not an opportunity afforded to many student activist groups on campus, Byrne said, so ending meetings with CAPS couldn’t be because of “reactionary rage.” It needed to be the right decision for the group.

Many of the members realized the changes they had hoped to enact within CAPS weren’t happening on the timeline they had expected.

One of the group’s major goals is transparency, and it worked to update so information would be more accessible to students. But changing the FAQ page was one of the only tangible things that Mayed saw come out of these meetings.

“It really took five months to update FAQs,” Mayed said. “We understand some of the constraints that they may have, but from our perspective that felt like, ‘Is this all we achieved in five months?’”

Members believed the meetings had become more of a back and forth of CAPS sharing some information and Reform CAPS sharing student experiences, but to little end.

The group met with Stefanie Lyn Kaufman-Mthimkhulu, the founder of a national mental health advocacy organization called and asked if ending meetings with CAPS meant that they were giving up on the students.

“They made it really clear that this was not giving up,” Bogdanowicz said. “This means that this is not the right path for right now.”

March 7, 2022

It ended at 9:15 a.m. on a Monday. Members of Reform CAPS walked through the basement of Scott Hall for their last meeting with senior CAPS officials.

“For this meeting, it absolutely felt like we were back to our very first meeting with CAPS because we had fully written out scripts and points we wanted to touch on, which was not the norm,” Mayed said.

They walked in with a stack of papers, shuffling them around on purpose so that the administrators knew they had an agenda.

After a couple minutes of dead air passed, the Reform CAPS members began to read student experiences again, like they had during the first meeting. They retold their own experiences. They responded to some of the criticisms that administrators made toward Reform CAPS in the previous meeting.

For 35 minutes, they talked and the administrators listened. In the remaining moments, the meeting quickly went south.

“Personally, I shared my own experience and it was invalidated,” Bogdanowicz said. “The way that they framed not just my experience but also the other student experiences was, ‘We’re adults. We know things that you don’t know.’”

After Bogdanowicz shared her story involving police intervention during a crisis, one of the administrators said they knew about her situation and that they had a different perspective.

“It was literally like a slap in the face. It was going past invalidation,” Bogdanowicz said. “It felt like they were telling me what my experience was, and at that point I literally wanted to get up and walk out.”

Byrne shared the story of how they were uncomfortable reaching out to CAPS when a friend was having a psychotic episode. In response, Byrne said one of the administrators implied that delaying treatment could have caused their friend permanent damage.

“When I heard that, it was like an electric shock,” Byrne said. “That was when I knew. I realized the full depth of how useless it was and how it wasn’t productive for us, for the other students, and how it was also so taxing on me and us, putting all this work in to see this constant invalidation of our personal experiences and the student body as a whole.”

Legally, University officials have to protect student privacy by maintaining confidentiality around student experiences, so Gilmer said he could not fully comment on the cases the Reform CAPS members were discussing at their meetings with CAPS.

“I think that may have contributed to the lack of acknowledgement that [the Reform CAPS members] were looking for about what they had shared, being in that quandary, trying to manage that ethical responsibility of keeping confidentiality,” Gilmer said.

As the Reform CAPS members shared their experiences with CAPS, Bridges-Carter said she felt she couldn’t fully voice her administrative perspective of what policies and procedures are important in different crisis situations because of the meeting’s structure.

“My comparison is like, I’m being poked at, but my hands are tied behind my back. I can’t respond. I can’t protect myself. I just have to try and put my body in a position such that it doesn’t hurt me when I’m being poked at,” Bridges-Carter said.

“I realized the full depth of how useless it was and how it wasn’t productive for us, for the other students, and how it was also so taxing on me and us, putting all this work in to see this constant invalidation of our personal experiences and the student body as a whole.”

– Reform CAPS member Max Byrne

Toward the end of the meeting, administrators apologized to Mayed for his experience with CAPS after he asked about accountability.

“I understand there is a difference between intention and impact, and they took our responses as [if] we didn’t care about their experiences, or we weren’t validating their experiences,” Dugo told NBN. “We did take time in that meeting to validate their stories. I think maybe I didn’t do it soon enough in the meeting, but I did hear it. I think we all heard.”

But by the time administrators shared their apologies and validations, Mayed and other members of the group wanted to utter their final goodbyes.

“Even the apology, to me personally, was framed in this way of, ‘I’m so sorry if you’ve felt that we’ve not acknowledged this. We acknowledged this experience when we first started meeting,’” Mayed said. “They just felt like it’s a one-time thing, but centering student experiences means that [they have] to be centered in every single conversation.”

Mayed said the apology was hollow and meant little to him. He wondered if other students who weren’t able to meet with CAPS face-to-face would ever receive an apology.

But acknowledgement of harm is not in the cards for CAPS. There are a lot of students who have painful stories about CAPS, but according to Gilmer and Dugo, there are also a lot of students who have had great experiences with CAPS.

“I fundamentally disagree with a public apology around the services that CAPS has offered because there was a lot of good done in those years, and I know we have to make shifts,” Dugo told NBN.

The administrators in the meeting believed that once they were done listening to these student experiences, there would be room for dialogue. But once Byrne announced Reform CAPS no longer wanted to meet, it was clear that wasn’t the case.

“There are a lot of students that have been harmed in the past. That’s the foundation of our work,” Bogdanowicz said. “Their inability or unwillingness to acknowledge those experiences means that those students who have had those experiences in the past are still being, in a way, shut out from those resources.”

As Reform CAPS walked out, the room was silent again. The student group didn’t expect a response, nor did its members want one.

“I fundamentally disagree with a public apology around the services that CAPS has offered because there was a lot of good done in those years, and I know we have to make shifts.”

– Dean of Students Mona Dugo

Today, Reform CAPS is returning to its original goals and updating its list of demands for CAPS. The group is forming a statement of acknowledgement of student experiences that it had asked CAPS to release. It’s also working to expand the campus chapter of Project Lets to bring more student-led mental health services to NU.

But on that final night during their post-meeting debrief, Byrne showed up with what they thought was an ugly and profane sheet cake. (Reform CAPS asked North by Northwestern not to print exactly what the sheet cake said.) The group sat in Main Library and had their cake, choosing to view the end of these meetings as a chance to do something new and potentially better.

“These meetings have been very heavy and a lot of the work that we’ve been doing is very heavy, so we’re trying to find the joy in it and the good moments,” Bogdanowicz said. “Not to make light of the experiences or situation, but I think that’s something you have to do in advocacy work. Find the joy in it.”