UC begins mental health review

    In an effort to bolster the mental health services offered on its 10 campuses, the University of California has undertaken a systemwide review of all issues related to psychological services.

    Greg Dale/Guardian
    Feeling blue:

    UC President Robert C. Dynes announced late September that UC Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost M.R.C. Greenwood would head the project, which will require her to work with chancellors and faculty Academic Senates at all campuses, according to UC Office of the President spokeswoman Ravi Poorsina.

    Dynes expects the review, which has just begun, to continue throughout the academic year and offer specific recommendations for students’ mental health care needs.

    The review will help strengthen a UCSD counseling program that has room to grow, according to Psychological and Counseling Services Director Reina Juarez.

    “We wish we had the means to make more incredible programs, which are all [just] hopes at this point,” she said. “We are doing so many things right now to help serve students’ needs, but something like psychology is often overlooked. Addressing mental health at a UC level is exactly what students and faculty need.”

    UCSD psychological services has a larger budget than some UC campuses, according to Juarez.

    The financial base, which is used largely for staff salaries, lags behind similar counseling programs at UC Berkeley, UC Davis and UCLA but ranks above UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, UC Santa Cruz and UC Riverside.

    A budget that could not meet San Diego’s high cost of living forced many UCSD psychologists to leave the program last year, Juarez said.

    “San Diego became very pricey, which our salaries could not keep up with,” she said. “We lost seven of our staff last year, and about four of them left because of salary reasons.”

    Although the program was able to serve approximately 2,000 students last year, this shortage of staff members led to another chaotic start this year, Juarez said.

    “It was very bad last year,” she said. “During the first quarter, there was a big amount of appointment losses, with students not wanting to wait that long for appointments, or canceling because they had second thoughts. We had a waitlist three weeks full with 100 students, because we wanted everyone who signed up to be screened at least once.”

    The lengthy wait time, especially for a first session, was an especially difficult period, according to Revelle College sophomore Tracy Ho, who used the on-campus program three times.

    “It usually took two to three weeks to get an appointment,” she said. “For the first time, it gets jammed because a lot of the space is reserved for students who are already established there. It would have been better if appointments had been more readily available. You eventually get your slot, but there’s the negative stigma of therapy that can make you rethink before your appointment if you want to go or not.”

    Ho said she attended on-campus sessions before her counselor suggested more long-term care at UCSD Medical Center in Hillcrest.

    “The fact that he let me know my options and referred me elsewhere was probably the thing I appreciated most,” Ho said of her psychologist. “My personal problems needed to be dealt with on a longer and more regular basis and they didn’t have the capacity and resources to deal with that on campus.”

    The service was still convenient, since the shuttle went straight to the center, and the therapy was covered by student health insurance, Ho said.

    UCSD counseling services are meant for short-term care, Juarez said, with patients using services three to five times on average. The program has a 12-session limit, which may be waived under special circumstances, she said.

    Those who do use the services, however, are generally pleased with its results, according to the latest Counseling Experiences Survey, administered in 2003-04.

    In the survey, all 202 students either “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that the counseling program was a “valuable student service.”

    However, some students expressed dissatisfaction with the amount of access, with comments calling for “more psychiatrists, please” and other stating that “more sessions should be offered.”

    Ho echoed the sentiment, and said that a subject as delicate as mental health should receive more attention.

    “It’s so important to have more people on staff,” she said. “The most important thing for people who need therapy is to be in therapy as soon as possible. I know a lot of schools don’t have psychologists mainly because of funding, but they should all be prepared.”

    College life is even more reason to focus on mental health, Ho said.

    “College made everything a lot harder,” she said of her own experience. “It’s a change in the environment itself. You have to deal with new ideas, a whole different set of people. [Even] people who don’t have problems find the change difficult.”

    Even with a full staff, which includes 12 senior clinical staff members, three postdoctoral fellows and five psychological interns, the services could always expand, according to Juarez. The program will require at least one or two more psychologists to fill the goal of having one psychologist for every 1,500 students, Juarez said.

    Currently, UCSD offers several other mental health services, including last week’s Depression Screening Day that served a record 172 students.

    Thirty-three of the students screened scored positive for depression while 13 were found to have symptoms indicative of bipolar disorder, according to campus psychologist Tiffany O’Meara. The campus also will hold an “Out of the Darkness” fundraiser in October to raise research funds for student mental health.

    The importance of balancing between social, academic and family life has placed the need on the University of California to ensure mental health programs can adequately serve students, Poorsina said.

    “In general, all universities are grappling with the changing needs of our students for mental health and counseling services,” she said. “This is an issue of national importance. It is important not only to the individual campuses, but to the UC system as a whole.”

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