Ben Craft: The Cynical Empath of CAPS

By Tristan Benedict, Mikayla Cooper, Sydney Leibfritz, and Grace Sims
Contributing Writers

The waiting room at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) tends to be full and silent. Three or four students sit perfectly spaced out among the six chairs lining the walls, a single chair separating them from one another. It’s unspoken rule that under no circumstance should students sit directly next to someone else lest talking should occur. Everyone locks their eyes on their phones, pretending not to read the same text five times. The smiling woman behind the counter occasionally slides open the window to remind a student to take a survey on their mental state.

By the time the cheery bearded man appears to whisk away another student for their session, the room lets out a collective sigh of relief. Another one down. The man introduces himself as Ben Craft as they walk down the hallway to his office tucked away in the corner.

Craft wears a lot of hats. Outside of the office, he’s seen sporting some type of baseball cap at any given time. He does not wear hats at work, however, except the myriad of figurative ones he alternates between from hour to hour. Teacher, therapist, counselor, advocate in administrative meetings–Craft seems to do it all in his role as a clinical case manager at CAPS.

His favorite part is counseling though, even on the days he has eight consecutive appointments. He notes that days like those are good ones, though they may be long, heavy, and somewhat hectic. He just smiles and says, “I never really feel like there’s a point where I feel like I have to take a break. I feel at home here.”

Scheduling a time to meet with him can be difficult given his erratic schedule and the potential for walk-in patients at any given time. He only has an hour or two of flexibility during typical work hours, if he’s lucky enough to even get that.

However, his job as a counselor requires keeping a cool head even in times of crisis and his office reflects this. Anyone would expect him to be the kind of person to have papers strewn all across his office to make sure he’s ready to shift gears at any given time, but everything from the wall of books on the back wall to his desk beside the door seems to be in perfect order, except maybe a crooked book or two in the shadow under a shelf. Pictures of family and friends are scattered across the file cabinet like a proud father hanging up A+ report cards on the fridge. Among them is his son donning a soccer uniform.

When you first meet Craft, you realize he’s the kind of guy you cannot help but like. He has that level of empathy that’s strong enough to make you question how he could possibly know so much about you after a five minute conversation.

This is a thought he often comes back to as the son of two psychologists. His father Dr. Warren Craft and step-mother Dr. Karen Yu both teach in the psychology department at Sewanee alongside him. For a while, he didn’t want to follow in their footsteps as a psychologist. He actually came to Sewanee hoping to pursue a Business or Economics major, but eventually realized that those majors were just what he thought people needed to do.

He dabbled in a few electives like basketball and photography but, in the end, circled back to psychology. “I’ll be honest,” he laughed, “I wasn’t good at anything else. I enjoyed other classes but eventually realized they weren’t for me. I never felt like I was trying that hard at psychology, especially compared to those math and Spanish classes I took at the beginning.”

After some encouragement from his advisor, he decided to pursue clinical psychology. He graduated from Sewanee in 2009, spent two years doing social work in Nashville and then in Florida. Eventually, the job became too much, leading him to leave that position after a particularly hard interaction with a young child covered in cigerette burns. The realization that social work wasn’t for him led to him to apply to graduate school at Troy University, where he eventually circled back to Sewanee as a professor of psychology.

Craft always knew psychology was where he was most at home. “It wasn’t like it was this or law,” he mumbled, “I can tell you right now that I’d be the shittiest lawyer ever. Someone would walk in and say ‘This man is guilty,’ and I’d just agree with them. I’d really, really want to believe them all.”

His comfort in his field and extraordinary levels of empathy keep his passion for his work alive, which is important in such a heavy field. Typically, his patients tend to struggle with depression, anxiety, OCD or obsessive-compulsive-like behaviors, and whatever issues students have to work through. These can be long-term based and rely on seeking out preventive care for problems they know will emerge as stress accumulates throughout the semester.

Most of his schedule bends around that handful of recurring patients. Others, however, only need short-term care. If there’s a rift in a close friendship, a loved one is going through something traumatic, or couples need relationship counseling, his office remains open to all.

“It feels like I’m doing good work, and I get that sense of self-efficacy like I’m accomplishing something and gaining something.”

He does note that most of his patients tend to be young women with very few men coming through his door. While the ratios have improved over time, most of CAPS’s attempts to draw in more male patients have led to little change. Last year, Craft and other clinicians held a toxic masculinity workshop to combat the stigma around mental illness in males.

A key portion missing from his patient demographics is substance abuse, which he knows from his own years at Sewanee. Every weekend he sees a mass coping mechanism across campus with binge-drinking and mass drug usage. To him, the “work hard, play hard” mantra echoed across the student body represents the larger problem at hand when broken down to why students party this hard from week to week. Also taking into account that male students are the least likely population to seek his help, the problem remains strong in Sewanee’s culture.

To some end, Craft remains cynical that he can truly have a significant impact in this facet of engaging the student body. “I don’t know if ever someone from the outside can correct [the lack of males seeking therapy]. As much as I identify as a former Sewanee student and everything, in the end I’m older and still on the outside. It has to somehow come from within. That all sounds really nice, but essentially what I’m saying is that I really have no idea.”

Of course, his skepticism has not stopped the University from continuing to fund efforts to reframe mental health to students to usher more individuals to seek out treatment. The biggest change being the plan for the new Wellness Commons on the site of the former University bookstore, which he feels is more reactionary to a much bigger national push for better resources. He jokes that Sewanee was not known for leading the pack on these issues.

In Craft’s years as an undergraduate at Sewanee, there was only one counselor and students only went into his office if they were in trouble. Dr. David Spalding was former military and closely tied with the Dean of Students office and administrative side. Craft remembers him as not fully understanding how to balance treatment with punishment.   

He also questions how quickly they plan to construct this new facility and what this new vision means for his department. He worries that a new building will lead the administration to hold higher hopes for what can be done with their same level of limited resources. A new building could lead the administration to question whether or not the two new clinicians they hope to secure are necessary given the shiny new premises and offices.

However, a new facility might also bring an opportunity to correct ongoing problems at CAPS. If they can have a separate entrance and exit rooms for their patients, privacy could be better than ever. Gone will be the crowded waiting rooms and awkward shuffling around classmates as one leaves a therapy session and another takes his or her place.

When asked if this might further stigmatize an already divisive issue, he hesitates, taking a sip from his coffee. He sighs, “I have to admit that it’s an impossible balance, but anything I can do to decrease stigma I want to. At the same time, if people don’t feel completely confident that their privacy is being kept, then we’re essentially pointless. So it is a hard line. I don’t want anyone’s privacy to be in question, especially on our campus. I don’t know if things have changed that much, but when I was here, people knew about things happening to me before I did sometimes. It’s crazy. We especially have to avoid that here.”

Still, the problems he sees with CAPS is not the building. It’s the resources. They need more clinicians–a little more funding wouldn’t hurt– but more clinicians are a necessity. Two new contract therapists will begin working this semester, making room for roughly 14 more patients, but he can’t deny they’d all be in a better place if they had been able to start with the new semester. Because contract therapists are defined by their temporary status, the possibility of their departure looms over the center.

For the majority of the year, there is a waiting list for students seeking treatment at CAPS. It’s a tense subject as Craft stammers a bit explaining the problematic dilemma it thrusts him and his colleagues into. Everyone on the list is guaranteed at least two appointments, “possibly three if you count the triage session.”

One way for students to avert the dreaded waiting list can be group therapy, which most students do not necessarily want compared to the allure of private, one-on-one counseling. Another option is seeking treatment outside of CAPS, which may open some more opportunities for treatment but comes at a cost. CAPS is 100 percent free for students to use and does not even require insurance.

The worst is when students walk-in and need treatment that day, but his next availability isn’t for two more weeks. His face contorts, “That’s nothing to [the students who need immediate care]. That’s what it feels like in that moment. Nothing. I think for the higher-ups, it’s harder to understand or to put as much perspective or concentration on that [in budgeting for the year].”

When Craft returned as a counselor and professor, much had changed because of Dr. Nicole Noffsinger-Frazier’s work in building CAPS up to what it is today as a resource students actively seek out. “I’m pretty skeptical about a lot. Especially on this campus, I can get very skeptical and very negative about things,” he says. “But, I can promise that everyone in this office […] we are here just for you guys, and nothing else. I wonder if people knew that, if they understood that a little bit better, if it would help with the stigma, if it would help with men coming in more.”