Opening Doors for Mental Health Services for Graduate, Professional Students

Matthew Savoca and Holly Hatfield hug
Matt Savoca and Holly Hatfield Rogai, a student affairs officer in Graduate Studies, hug after she announces him for the first time as “Dr. Savoca.” (Joe Proudman/UC Davis photo)

Mental Health Services

Matt Savoca sought out mental health counseling during his graduate studies at UC Davis, and he has encouraged some of his friends to do the same.

“Typically, the largest hurdle is actually walking in the door,” he said.

So UC Davis has been opening more doors, most recently for graduate and professional students. About a year ago, Graduate Studies re-established an office in its Mrak Hall suite for a psychologist serving graduate students. As of February, School of Law students could see a psychologist in a private setting in the school’s library.

“Graduate students face issues that are similar but different from undergraduates’ issues,” said Savoca, who recently completed a doctorate in ecology and is continuing to work as a teaching assistant through March. “To have an individual with specialized training and dedicated to graduate students is helpful.”

In addition to the law school, three other professional schools offer therapy at their facilities: the School of Veterinary Medicine, the School of Medicine and the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing.

Beyond a full slate of services available at Counseling Services in North Hall, there are also dedicated therapists within each of the undergraduate colleges. And Community Advising Network counselors are affiliated with student resource centers.

But academic demands usually keep graduate and professional students closer to a school or lab, so having a therapist within their sphere can be especially helpful. For those who serve as teaching assistants or supervise undergraduates, seeing a therapist outside of North Hall can also remove potential concerns of being seen by undergraduates in the Counseling Services’ waiting area.

A satellite system of help

Psychologist Dorje Jennette started six months ago in the newly created position of director of academic satellites for Counseling Services. He supervises most of the therapists in the schools and colleges, serves as a point of contact for school and college leadership, and coordinates programming.

Counseling Services has about 35 full-time-equivalent therapists, and the reason for putting some of them at the schools and colleges is simple.

“Their priority is to connect with someone who isn’t coming in through our normal procedure,” Jennette said. “We want to be oriented to what is most helpful to students.”

Therapists dedicated to serving graduate and professional students, he said, can also develop a greater understanding of the pressures of their school. He added that school staff members get to know the therapist and can personally introduce students to the therapist.

Graduate students

Psychologist Bai-Yin Chen is available three days a week in Mrak Hall to see graduate students — including those from the School of Education and Graduate School of Management. She also is available for appointments in Counseling Services and facilitates two support groups for graduate students.

Bai-Yin Chen outside Graduate Studies
Psychologist Bai-Yin Chen (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

What brings graduate students in most often, she said, are depression or anxiety, relationship issues, academic or career concerns, difficulty adjusting to the campus or other circumstances, and substance abuse.

Savoca, who later this spring will begin a fellowship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Monterey, likened the benefit of therapy to “having someone proofread your thoughts” to make sure they are accurate.

He encourages fellow students who may be struggling to reject any stigma associated with mental health issues and reach out for support.

Chen said she can help students understand what is affecting them. She offers students coping skills, suggests strategies to improve their interactions with others and connects them with resources.

“The fact that we have support there and psychologists who are available to us for free, why not take advantage of that?” Savoca said.

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