A conversation with new CAPS Director Greg Eells

As he takes on a new role, Eells talks past experiences as a counseling center director and increased access at CAPS.

In March, Greg Eells, previously director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Cornell University for 15 years, took the reins as executive director of Penn’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

Eells replaced former Executive Director Bill Alexander, who retired. He also spent five years as the director of the University of Southern Mississippi’s University Counseling Center and was president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors.

In other words, Eells is well-prepared for his new—yet familiar—role at Penn. 

Here, Eells, an affable and enthusiastic personality in presence, discusses the common threads he observes between Ivy League schools, what wellness means to him, and why we could all stand to get more sleep. 

Smiling man in a grey suit with a purple tie.
Gregory Eells. (Photo: Penn Counseling and Psychological Services)


What did you learn during your time at Cornell?

I’ve been a counseling center director for over 20 years. I was a counseling center director at the University of Southern Mississippi, which also really informed my experience. That was a regional state school with a lot of first-generation college students, a lot of first-generation African American students, a poor state, and that really informed my approach around mental health. 

Coming to Cornell was a big change, a very different school, and I think what I learned here is that Cornell and Penn have some strong similarities. This is my fifth week, but they’re both large Ivy schools, there are a lot of expectations [among students], a lot of competition, a lot of ‘having to be the best,’ and I think those have some real mental health implications. It becomes about competition more than why are you here, what is meaningful to you, what is your pursuit, what’s your path? And that can have huge negative impacts on your mental health. 

What have you learned about Penn in the short time you’ve been here?

I think a lot of the Ivy schools are similar in the sense they’re some of the most prestigious and highly visible schools in the world, and I think they’re magnets for people who tend to be competitive and it can create an environment where it can make some of those things worse. And I think Penn is like that. There’s this sense of ‘We have to work our way to something,’ and I think the hard part is you can lose sight of what is meaningful, and how to have balance in your life. And this isn’t just a college student issue; from my perspective, this is the deal in the modern world. 

The dilemma I struggle with, and everyone struggles with, is how do we balance the power of living in a very technologically oriented society and having agency over things that destroy people, like war, and pestilence, and starvation, and now I can be like, ‘Oh, I want to go to China.’ Three minutes on my smartphone, I have a hotel in Beijing and a flight. 

There’s incredible power there. What’s the meaning of that trip? The purpose? What’s the experience like? How do you incorporate that? I think that’s where I see CAPS playing a role in creating a space for students to craft meaning, because it plays a huge role in having positive mental health.

How are you prioritizing some of the challenges CAPS has?

One, I would say the staff here have done an amazing job before I got here, changing some systems. There are some really talented people here. That’s one of the things that attracted me. 

Some of it is understanding what were some of the positive changes made this past summer, because I think it’s important to acknowledge those—in terms of access, student wait times. Also, we will be examining how CAPS fits within the broader structure of Wellness Services.

What are some of those changes?

One of the big changes was having a counselor available for 24/7 access. Every counseling center across the country balances access and treatment. Because students want immediate access. So, this, you can just call 24/7 and talk to a counselor any time and it is really prioritizing access. 

Then we try to figure out how much treatment we can provide. We’ve reduced the wait times from those initial contacts to really within a week, to get someone into counseling. And we’re also always balancing the need to refer people out, because we’re a general clinic. 

Every counseling service, here included, is providing a level of mental health care that you and I with good insurance don’t get. If I want immediate access to a counselor, I can go sit in an emergency room and that’s it. There’s nowhere else I can call. I can call a suicide prevention hotline or some national line, but we don’t have that kind of access. 

I think it’s important for students to realize now is a good time to take advantage of this, because you have a level of access, and even a level of access to treatment, that sometimes may be challenging as you get older.

Could CAPS communicate that access better?

I’m talking to some folks here already about the Facebook page and how do we use social media to do that. Every counseling center is always trying to overcome the reality that counseling services are often services people don’t think about until they need it. So, even when you push messages out they may say, ‘Oh I’m good,’ and don’t pay attention to it. 

That’s one of the things we’re looking at. How do we work with [the Division of the Vice Provost for University Life]? The new Wellness division? That’s a huge opportunity to contextualize CAPS within Wellness and get a lot of messages out. 

But how I’m thinking about it, first, is building relationships. As a psychologist, you can get trained in cognitive behavioral therapy, or acceptance and commitment therapy, interpersonal therapy, but all the research shows most of the variance in successful outcomes comes from a positive relationship with your therapist, and whatever techniques they’re using accounts for 1 to 2 percent of the positive change. The relationship is almost all of it. I’m taking that same approach to leadership: the staff here, what are the things that are going well? What are things we can improve on looking at clinical systems? 

What does wellness mean? It’s a vague thing.

There are the different definitions of physical, social, spiritual, financial, psychological, emotional wellness, and I think all those things are essential to wellness broadly. It’s a hard thing to define. What I find refreshing about Penn is they’re having very intentional conversations about it. 

We want to really ask you what are the things that might really shift this culture and I think it’s made a big difference for students. It is going to mean a little bit of a different thing for everyone, but I think some of it is just really thinking about taking care of yourself, getting the bigger message on multiple dimensions. 

One of the things that doesn’t, around physical wellness, get enough of the conversation, which as a clinician I’m most worried about, is sleep. At Cornell, and my sense is this is true at Penn as well, I would review measures of different health indicators and one was a sleep scale. I probably reviewed thousands and thousands of charts, and I never saw a single Cornell student who didn’t score the worst possible score on sleep. No student was getting enough sleep to be healthy. The neurological damage and emotional damage that can occur from ongoing sleep deprivation at this time in people’s lives—any time, as well—is not to be underestimated. 

A lot of students you hear, ‘Well, you don’t get graded for sleep.’ Well, you get graded for stuff you can’t really do very well on if you don’t sleep. I think there can be some damage that is fairly serious when you don’t attend to this when you’re in college and your neurons are still developing. Your brain is still developing in key ways from 20 to 25, so it’s really kind of dangerous to think it’s OK to not sleep. Physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological, financial, none of those things are going to go well if you’re not resting.

Has anything surprised you since you started?

Not really. At Penn, like a lot of the Ivy schools, the culture is one that values autonomy. People are out doing their own thing, which makes wellness a little challenging. How do you pull people together? 

But I’ve also been impressed with the effort to do that. What’s important is the effort to pull it back together. 

Students seeking counseling services are encouraged to contact CAPS, located at 3624 Market St., First Floor. CAPS clinicians can be reached 24/7 by phone, 215-898-7021.