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Suicides a symptom of larger UC crisis

As more students with mental health problems enroll, campuses lack the resources to cope.

May 23, 2007|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

DAVIS, CALIF. — As 20-year-old Jennifer Tse was dying in January, she typed a message on her laptop to the coroner's investigators she expected would examine her body. The lonely UC Davis sophomore, depressed and struggling with her studies, had swallowed cold pills, antidepressants, dishwashing liquid and insect poison.

"It's kind of rather sad, it's no way out," she wrote as she described her blurred vision, shaking muscles and a sense that her head was detached from her body. "Hopefully my IQ will stay at the same level. If I end up dead, then oh well."

For five days, no one seemed to notice her absence until her roommate realized something was amiss, used a screwdriver to open the locked door to Tse's room and found her body on the floor.

Tse's death is another grim statistic in what university administrators say is an escalating mental health crisis on campuses across the nation.

She was one of at least nine students who committed suicide at UC Davis during the last three academic years. Her death came four months after a high-level UC committee concluded that the university's overtaxed mental health services fell "significantly short" and that the 10-campus system must urgently expand its counseling programs.

"We have had an increasing number of students with serious mental health problems while services are lacking," said UC Santa Barbara Vice Chancellor Michael Young, co-chairman of the Student Mental Health Committee. "We just don't have the appropriate level of support to have healthy campuses."

The increase in mental health problems at UC is part of a national trend arising from the growing stress of university life and the growing number of students who arrive at college already under treatment for mental illness, university psychologists and officials say.

Advances in drug treatment mean that many students with psychological disorders who could not have coped with campus life a generation ago now go on to college.

The number of students seeking counseling at the eight main undergraduate campuses (not including UC San Francisco and the new UC Merced) rose 23% during 2000-01 to 2004-05 from 12,384 students to 15,285 students.

At UC, a quarter of the students who seek counseling are already on psychotropic medication. Many are being treated for depression and anxiety, some for bipolar disorder.

Crises often occur when students, on their own for the first time, decide to experiment and go off their medications. It also is an age when undiagnosed psychological disorders can emerge.

Across the country, about 1,300 college students a year commit suicide, experts say. Though university students are less likely than other age and occupational groups to take their own lives, suicide remains their second-leading cause of death.

The UC Student Mental Health Committee called for "aggressive intervention" to reverse years of budget cuts in mental health services, double the counseling staff and implement dozens of recommendations to improve campus mental health care. UC needs 104 new psychologists just to meet national guidelines, administrators say.

The UC Board of Regents received the report in September and in March agreed to designate part of an increase in student fees for mental health services. But that amount, about $4.6 million next year, will allow the campuses to hire only a fraction of the psychologists the panel recommended.

"Have we done enough? No, everyone agrees," Young said.

For campus counselors who deal daily with depressed and disturbed students, the April 16 massacre and suicide at Virginia Tech by deranged student Seng-hui Cho was the realization of their worst nightmare. But on a daily basis, campus counselors are stretched thin trying to help students who are recovering from traumatic breakups, suffering from eating disorders or who intentionally cut themselves. At the same time, counselors must cope with students who disrupt classes, create disturbances in residence halls or stalk women.

"There are more troubled kids, that's the bottom line," said Elizabeth Downing, who heads the UC Santa Barbara health center. "We boomer generation parents have not done a good job in a way. We were so laid back. Now there's so much stress. I think we've done our children a great disservice. They are driven in every part of their lives."

At UC Berkeley, 45% of students surveyed in 2004 said they had experienced an emotional problem in the previous 12 months that significantly affected their wellbeing or academic performance. Nearly 10% said they had seriously contemplated suicide.

At UC Santa Barbara a decade ago, an average of 21 students a quarter came to the counseling center to report they were experiencing an emotional crisis. Now, more than 200 students a quarter come for help, saying they are in a crisis.

"Our crises have gone way up and we have fewer psychologists to deal with that," said Jeanne Stanford, director of counseling services. "We feel like we have become a crisis center."

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