Content warning: The following article contains explicit language regarding mental health, suicide and other topics that may be difficult for some readers. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255.
*The names of some students in this article have been changed to preserve the anonymity of @reformcapsnu or because of personal discussions that they prefer to keep anonymous.
May 31 was the last day of Mental Health Awareness Month. Students leading the Reform CAPS at Northwestern (@reformcapsnu) Instagram headed towards the Rock at 11 am, toting bottles and spray cans of paint. Upon reaching the Rock, they sketched out their designs, planning the white background and the purple letters. They sent their message to the school: The mental health services at Northwestern are in dire need of change.
Jane*, a freshman at Northwestern, couldn’t count on her hands the number of stories she’d heard about Northwestern’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). The negative reviews piled on as she talked to friends who were unable to get the help they needed or had to wait weeks or months to schedule an appointment with CAPS.
But all of this was before one of her closest friends was checked into the emergency room.
“We reached out to CAPS a couple of times, and this person ended up in the hospital after us basically begging CAPS to help,” Jane said. “This person talked to CAPS and told them what was going on, and they didn’t do anything. It took them a while to reach out, a while to get an appointment, and in the end, this person got a list of family therapists and that’s it.”
After conversations that led Jane to believe her friend was in danger, she called CAPS herself but was told that unless her friend was suicidal, there was nothing they could do to help. This was her breaking point.
“After we reached out to CAPS, everything just got worse, and that is absolutely not what should be happening, especially at a school that has the resources that Northwestern has and also has so much need," Jane said. "So many people here are struggling with some sort of mental illness or mental health issue.”
Curious about how many people were facing hospitalization or mental health crises on campus, Jane opened the 2017 to 2018 CAPS Annual Report. The report showed, for that school year, that there were 78 ER transports and 60 hospitalizations. The averages for comparably-sized schools are 21.6 and 17.9, respectively.
She reached out to some friends who were starting a mental health advocacy group on campus, Project LETS. After sharing stories over Zoom, the group realized their bad experiences were more than just isolated incidents. So they launched an Instagram page, @reformcapsnu.
Through @reformcapsnu, the Project LETS team started collecting and sharing the stories of other students so that more people would realize CAPS’s lack of support. One anonymous post on @reformcapsnu says, “When I finally got [an appointment] and explained my situation, the counselor essentially just went through the criteria for depression and offered little support outside of that. I had to do all of the legwork on my own end to get the support I needed.”
At 1:00 pm that Monday, everyone surrounded the Rock and started painting. Jane cloaked the sides with white acrylic paint as Emily* took the side with the broken pieces. Emily, a sophomore at Northwestern, had not thought much about mental health until the end of high school but realized her freshman year of college that she needed help.
“CAPS did absolutely nothing. I tried to make appointments, my mom tried to make appointments for me, and the wait time was two months. It took me walking into CAPS in tears, going up to the desk and being like, ‘I need to see someone right now’ for them to finally let me see someone,” Emily said.
As students covered the Rock with a new base color, Sahibzada Mayed, a sophomore in McCormick and Communications, and Max Byrne, a sophomore in McCormick, returned from a short venture to get extra paint.
Mayed, a former candidate for Associated Student Government presidency, was at the rally in solidarity with Reform CAPS after the group reached out to ask questions about his ASG campaign platform. The points he focused on eventually became the basis of Reform CAPS’s demands for change.
“There’s a lack of diversity in CAPS and access to resources. Wait times are ridiculously long, and that’s the first issue,” Mayed said.
CAPS’s lack of diversity was something that McCormick freshman Jose Muniz knew firsthand. After driving an hour to campus from his home in Chicago, he showed up that Monday with some friends and handy spray painting skills. At 2:30 pm, he faced the Rock and marked it with the movement’s key phrase, “REFORM CAPS.”
“I’m Latino, and I had a doctor from CAPS that was also Latino, so I felt comfortable talking to them about my issues,” Muniz said. “But then something happened and after I finished my sessions with them, CAPS gave me another counselor who’s not a doctor, and she’s Caucasian. She’s not like me, so it’s hard to talk to her.”
With the Rock finished and drying, Max Byrne helped Emily cover the long bench in front of it in black paint. In fall 2019, Byrne was a freshman but wanted to take a leave of absence due to a mental health crisis. However, when speaking with CAPS to request a leave of absence, Byrne was told to wait for an appointment that was weeks away, just before the deadline for medical leave. Byrne eventually received an appointment, but the experience pushed Byrne to get involved with Reform CAPS and Project LETS.
“Basically, their conversation with me revolved around safety checking, really aggressively, and didn’t really address or get into any of my actual concerns,” Byrne said. “They were worried if I am going to kill myself while I’m a student at Northwestern, and is that going to be a liability problem? Not ‘How can we support you with this transition out of college and eventually back into college.’”
After two hours of painting the Rock, it was Katie’s* turn to write a final message on the bench. Katie, a sophomore in the School of Communications, has been working with Project LETS as a co-founder since fall to spread mental health awareness and support on Northwestern’s campus.
“What drew me specifically to starting LETS is that it’s led by and for students who experience mental health, neurodivergence, illness, disability, etc.,” Katie said.
For Katie, one of the most important parts of mental health advocacy is the emphasis on lived experience. Their time as a peer advisor has shown them the value of student support, but it has also exposed them to an entire community of student leaders who know, in their words, “that CAPS sucks.”
“My peer advisor told me to never go to CAPS,” Katie said. “I don’t honestly know a single peer advisor that would recommend CAPS to their students. And that’s a fucking problem.”
Katie and other organizers for Reform CAPS did not want their slogan on the Rock to be the only message that stood out. At 3:30 pm, Katie started writing on the long bench in block lettering, “WE DESERVE BETTER. SUPPORT OUR STUDENTS.” The Instagram handle was then painted everywhere it could fit.
When asked why they showed up to paint the Rock and what changes they wished to see in CAPS, the common thread in the group’s demands is shorter wait times, diversity in their counselors, more transparency in CAPS funding and more than 23 staff members on Evanston’s CAPS team. Presently, CAPS does not make information about their funding or wait times publicly available.
At the moment, the group is working to broadcast their message and pick up momentum in anticipation of further action next school year. In the fall, Reform CAPS hopes to take more direct action through faculty support and speaking to Northwestern administration about their demands.
“I know there’s so many other Northwestern students that are going through the same things as me,” Emily said. “If [CAPS is] not going to help me, they’re not going to help them. So, I know change needs to be made. And I know there’s no other way to make it besides taking a stand.”