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Student mental health issues in the spotlight

By Dave Jones on September 29, 2006 in University

UC Davis' record-setting freshman class of 5,500 — the largest freshman class in the history of the entire UC system — has prompted officials to add mental health staff as well as mattresses, instructors and class sections.

The campus administration has authorized an additional psychologist and a new case manager position, both part time, for Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS.

Even more help may be on the way, in light of a recently released UC report that addresses student mental health services at Davis and the nine other UC campuses.

The report recommends restoration of critical mental health services lost to budget cuts in recent years. Students have been waiting longer for assistance, and at the same time, like college students across the country, "are presenting mental health issues with greater frequency and complexity," the report notes.

Regents urged action

The Board of Regents received the report last week, and some members urged quick action to shore up counseling for students.

"I was really heartened by how they took the report," said CAPS Director Emil Rodolfa, who testified before the committee that prepared the report.

"I am optimistic," said Rodolfa, a psychologist. "The university is looking hard at how to help the campuses develop better mental health services for students."

The systemwide report came from a committee that included Judy Sakaki, UC Davis vice chancellor for Student Affairs.


The panel recommended a three-tier approach:

  • Tier 1 — Implement new strategies for managing mental health crises, and add mental health personnel to meet the national standard for staff-to-student ratio.
  • Tier 2 — Enact a comprehensive prevention program that targets intervention programs for more vulnerable students.
  • Tier 3 — Expand key academic and learning services to enhance students' ability to manage academically related stress.

The review and subsequent report grew out of concerns expressed by Victor and Mary Ojakian after their 21-year-old son, Adam, took his own life at UC Davis in December 2004. His was the ninth student suicide at UC Davis since 2000, the most in the UC system in that time period.

At a Board of Regents meeting in September 2005, the Ojakians asked the university to examine its student mental health practices and policies throughout the UC system.

Parents involved

At last week's board meeting, Victor Ojakian praised the UC committee's report, according to news accounts. "They have shown no fear in saying what is going on," he told the regents, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. "Adopt this plan. Don't question it, just adopt it. ... Something needs to be done."

The report came to the regents as a discussion item only, so there was no action. However, President Robert Dynes directed Wyatt "Rory" Hume, provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs, to begin working with the campuses on ways to advance the recommendations.

At UC Davis, Rodolfa cited a 60 percent increase in his office's client count from 2000-01 to 2005-06, when CAPS professionals saw some 3,000 students, or about one in 10 of the entire student body.

As of January 2006, the CAPS staff at Davis included 10.73 full-time equivalent psychologists, for a ratio of one per 2,796 students. The International Association of Counseling Services recommends one psychologist for every 1,000 to 1,500 students.

UCSF posted the highest psychologist-to-student ratio, one per 3,636; Davis was second at one per 2,796 and Berkeley third at 2,517.

CAPS staff included 1.6 full-time equivalent psychiatrists, or one per 18,750 students, the third highest ratio in the UC system.

Despite the staffing cutbacks, Rodolfa said, students with urgent crises are still being seen quickly, within 15 to 20 minutes during regular business hours.


The slowdown comes for students with noncrisis issues. Then, first appointments are up to two weeks out, and follow-ups are two to three weeks after that. The waits are even longer during the height of any particular quarter, Rodolfa said.

"To tell someone that they cannot be seen for a couple of weeks or more is an emotional blow," he said.

Rodolfa said the increase in demand for counseling is driven by a number of factors: stress about global events in general as well as stress about school, and a lessening of the stigma attached to going to a counselor.

Rodolfa said CAPS cases include anxiety and depression, "students who feel isolated, and students who question who they are and where they're headed in life."

And, according to the UC report, many students — roughly one in four — are already receiving psychotropic medication at the time they seek counseling in the UC system.

'Different needs'

Such medication, along with counseling, can allow students to function normally and compete academically, the report states. It adds: "While these students may not have been able to attend college in the past, they are now graduating from high school and going on to pursue higher education. However, these students arrive on campus with different needs and expectations for services and also with different risk factors."

"College is a very stressful environment," Rodolfa said. "Students are smart, but sometimes their coping skills don't always work."

Mental health is not a CAPS issue, Rodolfa said. "This is a campus issue. How can we create safety nets to help students get through?"

For more information

The report online:

Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,