An Ounce of Prevention

    Last winter, UCSD was shaken by two student deaths by apparent suicide only one week apart. As the number of students affected by depression and mental illness continues to rise, Psychological and Counseling Services’ Suicide Prevention Action Committee is working to reach students struggling with depression and feelings of hopelessness.

    Jenn Hsu/Guardian

    “”What we are seeing is more students with depression and more serious mental illnesses,”” said John Sexton, the on-call clinical psychologist for PCS and an SPAC member with over 20 years of psychiatric experience. “”There is an increase in the use of mental health services.””

    The strong correlation between mental illness and suicide attempts (90 percent of American suicides are associated with mental illness) conveys worrisome implications for the rising national trend at college campuses.

    SPAC began in fall 2004 as a concentrated result of UCSD’s previous efforts at preventing student suicide. Although its acronym sounds like something more akin to a science fiction novel, the committee is a serious and dedicated group of psychologists at UCSD who are determined to help its three target populations – students, “”gatekeepers”” (faculty and staff members in contact with students) and administrators – improve their mental health in times of crisis. UCSD averages slightly less than two suicides per year – “”two suicides too many each year,”” Sexton said.

    According to SPAC’s list of prevention efforts for the 2005-06 school year, the committee “”continually reviews the literature to find empirically validated strategies for suicide prevention.”” Their clarion call is a firm and reassuring message – suicide can be prevented, no caveats or qualifiers.

    The program has 18 projects currently underway, including creating videos to air on individual college TV stations, providing training for groups that have regular interaction with students and formulating informational fliers and presentations, all designed to help students recognize risk factors like feelings of isolation and increase protective factors like skills in problem solving.

    Since UCSD is such a sprawling campus with a large population, PCS takes a decentralized approach to treating students. Each of the six colleges stations at least two psychologists, allowing them to be closer to and better serve the college’s staff and students despite financial constraints.

    Mental health programs at the University of California have struggled with funding and staffing deficiencies since the 2003-04 systemwide budget cuts reduced the UC mental health department’s budget by 15 percent and its staff by 50 percent, even as demand continues to increase and cases become more complex, according to a report commissioned by UC President Robert C. Dynes following the death of a UC Davis senior.

    In response to the funding cuts, UC mental health programs diverted resources toward programs like SPAC, which are designed to help the most needy students and provide prevention tools for their wellbeing.

    In addition to funding issues, last year’s Undergraduate Student Experience and Satisfaction report highlighted a pervasive obstacle to mental health at UCSD – a lack of a vibrant campus social life. The U.S.E.S. steering committee has undertaken improvement of UCSD’s campus climate with such actions as reintroducing “”Thank God It’s Friday”” concerts and emphasizing UCSD traditions.

    SPAC attempts to reduce self-imposed isolation and strengthen social networks by destigmatizing talking about mental health and looking for help, communicating that having problems and needing help with coping strategies is not a sign of intense mental illness.

    “”If you are not doing well emotionally, talk about it,”” Sexton said. “”That talk might begin with a friend.””

    A strong social support network is an important protector of mental health because talking about problems with others helps people see situations more accurately and objectively, he said.

    Even students in an emotionally straining intense academic environment or those facing serious family or relationship problems may be afraid of being labeled “”crazy”” if they seek professional help for mood issues.

    “”People don’t want to be labeled as having a mental health problem,”” Sexton said. “”That stigma might keep them away from seeking help. It would be nice if the student thought of getting help as ‘performance enhancement.'””

    ­-­Additional reporting by Heather Welles, Senior Staff Writer.

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