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Community counseling sessions help Rutgers CAPS expand its reach

<p>Students can call the CAPS main number at 848-932-7884 when CAPS is closed, and a voice message will prompt students to connect to the new Protocol service.</p>

Students can call the CAPS main number at 848-932-7884 when CAPS is closed, and a voice message will prompt students to connect to the new Protocol service.

The Center for Counseling, Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of its “meso practice” model, a program created to expand discussions of mental health across campus. 

Also referred to as “community-based counseling,” the meso practice is a marriage between individual and community health at large, said Annmarie Wacha-Montes, assistant director for Community Based Services at CAPS. The program is a more inclusive, more diversified approach to mental health and wellness. 

One of the meso practice’s initiatives, “Let’s Talk,” has been successful, Wacha-Montes said. The informal, drop-in sessions had 206 meetings last semester. The initiative had 101 sessions in total throughout the previous academic year. 

The program is looking to broaden its reach into other departments for the future, she said. 

“Let’s Talk” hours will continue to be offered, and the community-based counselors are cultivating new innovations to improve the student experience, Wacha-Montes said. One of their many priorities is the diffusion of information about self-care and mental well-being.

She said that the meso practice pushes for more comfortable and personalized support.

“There are students who choose not to access our mental health services," Wacha-Montes said in an email. "The reasons range from negative beliefs related to mental health and treatment, to lack of convenience and time or even lack of trust in the system."

She said that community-based counseling lets CAPS meet students where they are physically, culturally, academically and experientially.

These counselors are located in centers around campus, like the Center for Latino Arts and Culture, Wacha-Montes said. They provide familiar spaces for individuals to address specific concerns about their communities. 

She said a drop-in period each week allows students to engage in more relaxed dialogue, while workshops and intervention programs offer a more intensive atmosphere.

What began as two community-based counselors in January 2017 has extended to five, with another soon to be hired, Wacha-Montes said. 

These counselors have insight and experience with their respective communities. 

Richard Carlson, community-based counselor for the Mason Gross School of the Arts and the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy, said that his interests in performance and visual arts help him connect with Mason Gross School of the Arts students.

Members of the Rutgers University Student Assembly (RUSA) also worked closely with CAPS and the meso practice.

Christie Schweighardt, vice president of RUSA and Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy senior, said she collaborated with CAPS in developing the hiring process for community-based counselors, as well as other initiatives. 

“These programs have shifted the focus from waiting for students to come to the counseling centers to going out into the community and connecting with students in the spaces where they feel most comfortable," she said in an email.

Schweighardt said that the meso program and its counselors remove a lot of the barriers that some students experience when looking for help. The program tackles issues like students being afraid to call or visit a center for help.

She said that seeking help at such a large university can be a challenge because sometimes people put academics and other aspects of their lives above their own mental health.        

Fanteema Barnes-Watson, the community-based counselor for the School of Engineering and the Rutgers Business School, said she has embedded introductory classes within her department with mental-health statistics and campus resources to normalize the conversation surrounding mental health.

“With Valentine’s Day this month, people often think about love toward a partner, family or friend. However, it might be that self-love and self-compassion is missing in one’s thoughts," Wacha-Montes said. 

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