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Report Faults UC's Mental Health Care

Psychological services for students are starved for funding and staff even as serious mental issues are on the rise on campuses, study finds.

September 20, 2006|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

Victor and Mary Ojakian didn't know the extent of the depression afflicting their son Adam until the 21-year-old UC Davis senior took his own life at school in 2004.

The grieving parents spent the next nine months trying to understand what had gone wrong in their son's life, then appealed to University of California leaders to examine UC's mental health policies and programs and try to do more to prevent student suicides.

A new report, scheduled to be discussed by the UC Board of Regents today, indicates that the family was right to be concerned.

The study, requested by UC President Robert C. Dynes in response to the Ojakians' plea, paints a grim picture of a student mental health system starved for funding and staff, even as UC campuses and others across the nation are witnessing a dramatic rise in both the numbers and severity of mental health problems among students.

The report said that many more UC students than in previous years were coming to campus already coping with complex mental health issues -- a finding consistent with national trends. About one in four students seeking counseling on UC campuses was already taking tranquilizers or other psychotropic medications, it said.

Nonetheless, the number of psychologists or psychiatrists per student is below the recommended levels at nearly all UC campuses, the result, in part, of several years of cutbacks in students services, the report said.

UC counselors often must struggle to balance the increased demand for crisis interventions with the needs of students dealing with the more traditional college issues of homesickness, academic troubles or relationship problems. Students who do not identify their situation as a crisis often wait three to six weeks to see a counselor and "may fall through the cracks," the study said.

The report listed recommendations ranging from increasing staffing and raising salaries for mental health professionals to developing targeted intervention programs for vulnerable groups. Such groups, it said, include graduate students, international students and gay and lesbian students.

The issue of student mental health has been the subject of growing national attention in recent years, with many college campuses reporting rising numbers of students in psychological distress. A 2004 study by the American College Health Assn. said that nearly 15% of about 47,000 students surveyed that year had been diagnosed with depression, a figure that had increased nearly 5% since 2000.

But many others, the UC report said, have at least occasional trouble coping with the changes that come with college, including loneliness, academic struggles and the pressure to succeed.

Between 2000 and 2005, at least 29 students enrolled at UC campuses committed suicide, according to figures in the report, which also said those numbers may represent only part of the story. Attempted suicides and deaths not confirmed by coroners were not included.

UC Davis had the highest figure among the UC campuses, listing nine deaths by suicide over the five-year period, including three in the 2004-05 school year, the year Adam Ojakian died. UCLA listed seven deaths during the five-year period, with four in the 2003-04 school year.

Janina Montero, UCLA's vice chancellor for student affairs and a member of the committee who wrote the report, said it shed light on the challenges facing the university's mental health service providers. Recent cutbacks "have been pretty devastating," she said, but UCLA has tried to cut support staff where necessary and not reduce the number of counselors providing direct services to students.

The Ojakians, who plan to address the UC board's meeting in San Francisco today, said they learned after their son's death that he was feeling intense academic pressure that may have contributed to his suicide. They also believe that UC Davis officials could have done more to help their son, but credited the campus for many changes in the months since his death.

Victor Ojakian, a former Palo Alto mayor who is a project manager for Hewlett Packard, said the new report was an important step in highlighting a growing problem.

"We're pleased with the report because it's candid and doesn't pull any punches," he said Tuesday. "It points out that there's an issue, not only because of reduced staffing but because of the increase in the number of students needing these services.

"But our goal, ultimately, is to drive down the numbers of these suicides."

rebecca.trounson@latimes.com

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