UCSB has experienced an increase in suicide attempts and in students seeking counseling this year.
During winter quarter, Counseling Services saw a significant rise in crisis appointments, and four suicide attempts were reported in the first two weeks. Two suicides have occurred since late August, and there was a 48 percent increase in reported suicide attempts between fall 2007 and fall 2008, according to Counseling Services.
But mental health experts on campus say this increase, while alarming, does not necessarily mean there has been a surge in student mental health problems. They believe that while there is no denying mental health problems among college students are growing, there has also been an increase in reports and in students seeking help; that recent tragic headlines are calling attention to an already present student mental health crisis that has been panning out at UCSB and other colleges nationwide for years.
Both administrators and students are working to de-stigmatize mental health issues on campus and make students aware of the resources UCSB has to offer. Not wishing to spread panic nor downplay the seriousness of student mental health, they hope to create an atmosphere of awareness where students will know when and how to get help for themselves and their peers.
â€œA number of different things are happening,â€ said Jeanne Stanford, Director of Counseling Services. â€œWeâ€™re documenting better, more people are coming to counseling and being referred by concerned friends and roommates, and in general, students are facing more stress and feel more pressured.â€
Stanford and other experts say the age range of college students alone predisposes them to develop mental health issues, but the added pressures of academics, increasing competition, and the economy are not helping and can exacerbate problems.
The Center for Disease Control says that suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students.
Fifty percent of college students report feeling so depressed at some point that they have had trouble functioning, and Prozac is the most prescribed medication among college students, followed by anti-anxiety medications and other anti-depressants, according to College of the Overwhelmed: The Campus Mental Health Crisis and What To Do About It.
While winter quarter saw a jump in crisis cases, the trend has been rising over the years. In 1991, Counseling Services had 62 crisis appointments, and in the 2004-2005 school year there were 462 appointments. Student Health also saw mental health visits more than double in the past 10 years.
Due to budget cuts, Counseling Services has not been able to hire enough counselors, increasing appointment wait times for sometimes weeks.
â€œThe ratio of counselors to students should be 1 counselor to every 1,500 students, and right now weâ€™re at 1 to every 1,900,â€ Stanford said.
Two net counselors are said to be hired soon to cope with the growing number of students seeking counseling, and students in urgent crises can always be seen immediately.
â€œNo matter whatâ€™s going on financially, we will never refuse to see a student,â€ Stanford said.
UCSBâ€™s increase in students seeking counseling is consistent with the UC system as a whole, which experienced a 23 percent increase between 2001 and 2006, according to a report by the UC Student Mental Health Oversight Committee.
The committee stemmed from a task force headed by Vice Chancellor Michael Young in 2006 which gathered information about student mental health and the UCâ€™s response to it. Young currently co-chairs the committee with Joel Dimsdale of UC San Diego, and the committee regularly updates the UC Regents on student mental health and provides recommendations.
The Committeeâ€™s 2006 report found that student mental health problems in the UCs have increased significantly both in number and severity, and that dwindling funds meant the UC could not adequately respond to the worsening situation.
It also found that one in four students seeking counseling are already taking psychotropic medications, and that those at the greatest risk of mental health concerns include graduate students, international students, lesbian, gay and bisexual students, and racially/ethnically underrepresented students.
At the most recent UC Regents meeting on March 18, Young and Dimsdale reported that in the last year, there have been 11 suicides in the UC system, which is not an increase, but that psychiatric hospitalizations have increased by 79 percent.
In response to the committeeâ€™s 2006 findings, a number of resources were launched to help meet the reportâ€™s recommendations.
â€œThere was a pretty modest increase in funding pointed towards mental health, so thatâ€™s helped us to do some things on campus that are really great, like 24/7 phone counseling,â€ said Angela Andrade, Coordinator of Mental Health Services at UCSB. Andradeâ€™s position was created in 2007 as part of the response. She works as a point of reference on campus for all things concerning student mental health, points students in the right direction for help, and holds Distressed Student Trainings for staff, faculty and TAs to familiarize them with warning signs exhibited in students.
â€œWe offered many more trainings last year and worked on making folks on campus aware of resources, where to refer students and what signs to look for,â€ Andrade said. â€œI think weâ€™re seeing that those people who are in contact with students recognize the signs and refer students, and hopefully that allows us to intervene earlier and get students connected to help.â€
Andrade said increased stress, the competitive college atmosphere and the economy are likely contributing to the increase in distressed students.
â€œIt rattles students quite a lot when their families have major financial issues and weâ€™re definitely seeing more of that,â€ she said. â€œMostly what Iâ€™ve seen is parents losing their jobs, and sometimes its more than one parent.â€
In addition to helping students one-on-one, Andrade works to de-stigmatize ideas about mental health on campus.
â€œMental health isnâ€™t â€˜you and themâ€™,Â itâ€™s ‘us’,â€ she said. â€œThis is who we are, and openness is really important. I hope it will help students get the help they need and help others recognize it when they canâ€™t recognize it themselves.â€
Burt Romotsky, a social worker at Student Health, sees students who range from being highly stressed to living in serious crisis. His position was added to Student Health six years ago, and today he sees and hears from more students and their concerned loved ones than ever.
â€œIf a student is not sure where to get help for any stressing situation they may have, from mental health to financial, housing, or academic concerns, we work with the student and figure out what their needs are,â€ Romotsky said.
Appointments with Student Healthâ€™s social workers are always free and confidential. Romotsky and Brandi Walsh, another social worker, provide linkage and support to students and help connect them with resources. They also work with the Office of Student Like, faculty and staff to address situations.
â€œWe really try to balance respecting a studentâ€™s privacy, but if they really seem at risk of needing urgent attention, we try to get them in and make outreach calls to get them the assistance they need. We have a good relationship with the local psychiatric hospital as well,â€ said Romotsky.
Romotsky said there are usually between 30 and 38 psychiatric hospitalizations each year, but there have already been between 30 and 35 psychiatric hospitalizations this year. Seventeen to 20 were hospitalized during fall and winter quarters last year.
If a studentâ€™s mental health or distressing situation is so severe that it affects his or her functioning and academic performance, he or she may be encouraged to take a break from school. Students can also opt to be exempt from unit requirements and receive academic accommodation through the Disabled Students Program, where psychologically impaired students are its fastest growing served population served.
Romotsky believes the increasing severity of student mental health problems may also be due to advances in psychotropic medications in the last decade which have enabled students with very serious disorders such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia to attend college.
â€œPeople years ago that maybe had a significant mental health problem may not have been able to come to college, but medications today are much more effective and there are also more support services in public schools prior to coming to college,â€ he said. â€œPeople are more able to come to campus, but sometimes when they come, they might not have the level of support they have in their home environment, so sometimes the symptoms could get worse.â€
Dean of Students Yonie Harris believes it is important for students entering college on psychotropic medications to stay on them.
â€œStudents run into problems when they try to get off a medication without having that decision sanctioned by a doctor,â€ she said. â€œI think the benefits of medication outweigh the negatives for students and I would just urge them to not make that decision alone.â€
Harris said although she believes it is too soon to determine what exactly has caused the recent increase in suicide attempts, the administration recognizes the student mental health crisis and has the well-being of students in its best interests. She believes students should not perceive the universityâ€™s resources in a â€œtake it, or leave itâ€ manner, but that the university wants to hear student concerns and get them help.
A significant amount of work being done on campus to increase mental health awareness and support is being lead by students.
Gladys Marinque, a Mental Health Intern, and Marianne Clark, a recent graduate and now Assistant to the Coordinator of Mental Health Services, have spent the last two years promoting mental health awareness and support among students through organizations and campaigns.
Clark, who transferred to UCSB from a semester system school, believes the pressure of the quarter system and the MCP policy can affect a studentâ€™s mental health.
â€œThere are some students who canâ€™t do more than 12 units, so putting that pressure on them is causing a lot of extra stress in their lives and pushing them beyond their means,â€ she said. â€œI think the administration would do well to think about how it affects the students mentally.â€
Marinque believes students should view mental health as any they would other illnesses.
â€œIf you had a headache, youâ€™d take medication for it. Or if you have a broken arm you see the doctor, so why wouldnâ€™t you do that for something thatâ€™s wrong with you?â€ she said.
Marinque began the â€œBe a Friendâ€ campaign last year to encourage students to look out for one another and provide support to friends who may be suffering from a mental health issue.
â€œIt encompasses going back to the idea of being a friendly person,â€ she said. â€œInstead of just having a friend you go out drinking with, have a friend you can actually talk to and will be there for you and get you the help that you need. Itâ€™s a very whole definition of what being a friend is.â€
Marinque and Clark are also concerned many students may use alcohol to self-medicate possible mental health issues.
They believe students should take advantage of counseling when itâ€™s free, and encourage students who have negative feelings about counseling or about the administrationâ€™s role in student mental health to e-mail them with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marinque and Clark were also involved in the formation of the A.S. Commission on Well-Being last quarter, which they believe is the first instance of mental health advocacy appearing in college student government legislation.
Steven Wolfson, an Off-Campus Representative on Legislative Council helped pass a resolution acknowledging the student mental health crisis last quarter. He believes strains in funding due to the state budget crisis and the possible student tax could be devastating to mental health support on campus.
â€œWeâ€™re starting to realize that since the budget is getting worse and worse, itâ€™s becoming more of an unreasonable goal to want to administration to respond the situation with their wallets,â€ he said. â€œThatâ€™s why I want to increase communication between groups like the Commission on Student Well-Being, the Wellness Center, and Counseling Services, because awareness is a much bigger part than adding additional services. We should be doing both but we can only do one effectively at this point.â€
Active Minds, a club dedicated to de-stigmatizing mental health issues on campus, hosts events promoting mental health awareness and support. During fall quarter, it brought a speaker who survived a jump off of the Golden Gate Bridge to a packed IV Theater.
President Nadra Safi said the club has received very good reception and support from students; its e-mail list had over 100 subscribers in its first quarter of existence. Still, the club occasionally runs into stigmas associated with mental illness.
â€œWhen we tabled at Spring Insight, there was actually one person who came up to me and said, â€˜Oh, suicide prevention? We donâ€™t want you to be over here,â€™â€ she said.
Safi said part of why she became active in the club is because she lost her best friend to suicide.
â€œI was too afraid to call 9-11 and I was afraid she would get mad at me, but now I really wish I had,â€ she said. â€œThatâ€™s why I really want people to know that calling 9-11 is totally an option.â€
Other student groups working to counter student mental health problems include the Wellness Center, the Healthy Eating and Living Interns, and Counseling Servicesâ€™ Stress Peers.
There are a number of resources on campus available to students struggling with mental health. The new 24/7 After Hours Counseling Hotline (893-4411) allows students as well as concerned friends and family to speak with a psychologist at any time, including holidays and weekends, and free individual and group counseling is available at Counseling Services, as well as resources for coping with stress. UCSBâ€™s Hosford Clinic offers counseling at reduced costs, and psychiatrists and social workers can be seen at Student Health. Anyone concerned about a friend is encouraged to speak with Angela Andrade at the Office of Student Life.
â€œI have a lot of faith in people being able to help another person, and a lot of times, the person wants the help and maybe just needs somebody to be there for them and help them along,â€ Andrade said.
â€œIf you have agreed to keep a secret, but you think your friend is in real trouble, it may be time to share the secret, because getting help for a friend is not tattling, itâ€™s not getting them in trouble, itâ€™s getting them help. And most of the time students are really relieved when they get help.â€
Andrade said students who believe they may have a problem but are hesitant to seek help should remember they are not alone.
â€œItâ€™s important to know that anxiety and depression are very common, that everybody gets stuck, and that its ok to get a little help to get through it,â€ she said. â€œIt doesnâ€™t mean that youâ€™re going to go to counseling for the rest of your life, and if you try medication it doesnâ€™t mean youâ€™ll be on it for the rest of your life; you still make your own choices. Know that it can get better. It really can get better.â€
Harris encourages students not to hesitate from calling the university if they are concerned about someone.
â€œOne of the things we have to de-stigmatize is making that call. Itâ€™s not ratting on somebody; it will help a person when that person needs help. And believe me, there have been some life-saving calls.â€