Though we hear about Penn’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) most often when there’s a crisis—September 11, Katrina—the center that Ilene Rosenstein runs helps students throughout the year. It’s a well-utilized service, too, with more than 2,000 students seeking counseling each year, and another 6,000 or so attending outreach workshops around campus.
At Penn since 1987, Rosenstein found her career niche early while studying for her Ph.D. at the University of Missouri/Columbia where she was required to do a practicum at the college counseling service. “I just found it fabulous,” she says. “Having worked in community mental health, I realized this was the best of community mental health because you really knew your community, you really knew your resources and here in the college setting there were people who really wanted to engage in conversation about how to help this population have satisfying, productive lives.”
Rosenstein has kept that goal at the forefront in her work at Penn. With a staff of around 20, CAPS offers individual and group counseling and therapy, crisis intervention, outreach workshops and career and psychological testing to undergraduate and graduate students. As well as helping them over emotional bumps and shepherding them through crises, Rosenstein sees the center’s larger aim as giving students lifelong skills and teaching them resilience, “so that they can leave college feeling that they can contribute to the world.”
Q. What’s the number one reason students come to CAPS?
A. The number one reason is always academic. Now, they may have a 3.8 so it’s not because they’re in academic trouble, but they’re concerned that their problems are affecting their academics. It could be a relationship issue that’s going on, but it’s affecting their academics. The second and third major reasons are anxiety and depression. and those kind of switch back and forth depending on what year and again the number one is still academic because the anxiety and depression interferes with their ability to really be the best they can be. The mission here is to help students be better students and to really be able to function and thrive, and oftentimes students are coming in and saying I’m not thriving academically because I have these other psychological issues that are going on.
Q. Is this often their first experience with a counselor?
A. It used to be that roughly 10 percent of students who came to us had previous counseling experience. Now its 50 percent. The good news on that is that many of them had good experiences and felt that this could work again for them.
Q. So they don’t feel there’s a stigma?
A. Probably one third of the clients we see don’t feel a stigma at all. They see this as a way of improving themselves, just as they would use a tutor, and its no sweat. For others, it’s not the stigma of counseling that they’re worried about but they have the sense of “God it’s hard to go in because it means I can’t do it on my own.” There’s another group who feel there’s a stigma in coming to the counseling center in the sense that they think that they have to be seriously ill to come here. So I think there is a subset of people who are surprised when we say, “No, people come in for situational problems. They are maybe seen two or three times and it’s not a big deal.” We try very hard with our outreach to say, “Look, don’t wait until you’re having trouble getting out of bed because in four or five sessions you could be back on track, and it gives you a resilience and you’ve learned something about how to handle something.” I think faculty and administrators are very good on our campus at talking to their students and saying, “Look, it’s really okay to go.”
Q. Is it worse than when you were their age?
A. Things are different for them, there’s no question. The millennium generation that’s here now is very different. I’m a baby boomer. The millennium generation is very used to asking adults for help. Usually their heroes are someone they know personally, a teacher, a coach, a parent. In my generation it was a president, an athlete. Now rarely do you hear someone say the president is their hero. So they’re a very different crew. Also the pace of life is so much quicker for them than when I went to school and the pressure career wise is so different for them and I think that’s what’s causing the depression in this group. There’s a real pressure to be perfect all the time, always to be on top of things. I mean, people aren’t allowed to have pimples anymore or not-white teeth. I think particularly at Penn there’s this feeling of having to be perfect and having to succeed and if you don’t it’s your fault and those are conditions that lead people to be very stressed and also depressed.
Q. Do you still do counseling yourself?
A. I’m a clinician by nature and I love seeing students. I really don’t have time to see students—I have a large shop—but I think it’s really important to get an idea of what’s going on. Penn students are so bright and so motivated even if they don’t know why they’re not getting out of bed. They have so many strengths and there are so many good things to work with so it’s very gratifying to see them get to a better place.
Originally published on November 3, 2005