By Sarah Starr
Hormonal changes during post-adolescence often spark feelings of sadness. But for Linda, a second-year student at UC Santa Cruz, depression came on before she reached college.
“[Depression] has been a struggle,” Linda said. “I have to make sure I get the things I require to control my depression.”
Linda was diagnosed with clinical depression at age 14, and has been seeing a counselor since she was nine.
“It’s hard to control the depression without the drugs,” Linda said. “I can definitely feel the difference if I forget to take my medications.”
Once in college, Linda found that despite many of the services offered by the university for dealing with depression, she was not able to receive enough treatment for her condition. Linda has found that exercise, a change in diet, and the use of herbal supplements such as St. John’s Wort have helped curb her dependency on medications to deal with her depression, but the lack of long-term services provided by the health center has been a disappointment.
“I’m not that impressed by the services offered on campus,” Linda said. “I need long-term counseling and unfortunately they only offer short-term.”
The university does offer a variety of Counseling Psychological Services (CPS). Group and Student Health Psychiatry Services are free for all registered students. CPS looks at many different options when seeking treatment, including counseling for individuals, couples, families, and groups. Other services include psychotherapy, immediate (urgent) counseling, workshops, consultation, and residential crisis programs.
However, most people who need long-term counseling, like Linda, have to look elsewhere.
When services on campus are overwhelmed, the university does refer students to local, larger private practices such as Dominican Hospital’s Behavioral Health Clinic.
Last month, a panel was brought to campus through the cooperation of many UCSC psychiatrists and counselors to address the growing issue of depression, and offer students advice on coping with the mental illness. Students were asked to participate and ask questions about depression in the bright, open space of the Bay Tree Conference Center.
One of the panelists, Patrice Monsour, a licensed psychologist with a background in clinical and community psychology, explained the purpose of the discussion.
“These issues need to be talked about without stigma,” Monsour said.
The panel, which wanted to address the closeness of this issue to home, came to campus partly in response to the death of former UCSC Chancellor Denice Denton, who committed suicide last summer after struggling with severe depression.
Around 5,000 people between the ages of 15 to 24 take their lives each year—a number that continues to grow—and Santa Cruz County has some of the highest suicide rates in California, according to the Santa Cruz County Coalition for Mental Health.
Recognizing the need to raise awareness about depression and suicide, the coalition began a campaign in 2002 to change the way people think about and serve the mental health needs of the community. In early 2004, an advisory group formed with the goal to achieve a mentally healthy community.
As members of the UCSC panel pointed out, depression is often considered a ‘weakness’ and not a mental illness. Depression is a symptom of mood disorder characterized by intense feelings of loss, sadness, hopelessness, failure, and rejection. Suicide and depression tend to go hand-in-hand, as suicide generally stems from severe cases of depression.
Jeffrey Crowson, a psychology professor at UCSC, felt that winter was the perfect time to host the panel, as winter often brings sadness along with rain. Seasonal Affective Disorder Syndrome (SADS), also known as Winter Depression, occurs during the winter months. The symptoms are similar to major depression, except that it remits once the days become longer and warmth and sunshine reappear in the spring.
One of the major points of the panel discussion was to highlight the disturbingly high rates of suicide among college students.
“Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among undergraduate college students,” Crowson said, although he pointed out that college students are no more likely to attempt suicide than non-college students in the same age range. “Awareness of the warning signs of possible suicidal ideation is a key to intervention efforts, and many colleges have instituted education programs to increase awareness of the typical warning signs.”
UCSC requires all resident assistants (RAs) and neighborhood assistant (NAs) to be trained in ways to deal with students who might be or become depressed. The stress that college students deal with often leads to depression, making college campuses a prime location to develop depression.
One NA from Oakes College, Miriam Faw, agrees that education on depression—and its warning signs—are vital.
“We spend half a day working on methods to use when you notice one of your residents is depressed,” Faw said. “They teach you how to practice ‘active listening,’ a form of listening where you respond with a head nod or a gesture but focus on what [the depressed student] is saying.”
According to the panel, having an active listener allows a depressed person to feel a human connection, which can help to prevent people from internalizing problems.
While training in dealing with students who show outward signs of depression is no doubt beneficial, it is clearly not enough to ensure that everyone who needs help receives it. People with no outward symptoms can still be depressed and have suicidal thoughts. The panel pointed out that some groups are especially prone to depression.
Students of color and queer communities are often under additional pressure because of discrimination.
Brody, a second-year UCSC student, talked about the difficulty of coming out, and the depression that followed.
“It was just because I was realizing I was different,” Brody said. “I felt alone and that nobody could relate to me.”
However, Crowson noted that depression and suicidal thoughts can be inherent in individuals.
“It seems to be that some people are predisposed to develop depression, while others may never become severely depressed—same as with many psychological and medical problems,” Crowson said.
Veronica Tonay, a licensed psychologist and lecturer at UCSC, shared her own story about handling her depression.
“I credit therapy for ending my depression,” Tonay said. “As a therapist [now], I hear a lot of distress [but I] still need somebody else to hear me, and talk about my struggles.”
Therapy has been a useful form of treatment for depression, but sometimes it may not be enough. Some serious forms of depression have been linked back to a chemical imbalance in the body, and prescriptions such as Paxil, Zoloft and Prozac are often prescribed to help treat depression by restoring chemical balance.
Some health care professionals, however, maintain that there is no connection between a chemical imbalance and depression. Critics of prescription drugs say that they are often over-prescribed.
Brody was prescribed medication to fight his depression, even though he believes the cause of his condition was brought on by his struggles with coming out.
“I was placed on anti-depressants by my parents in the sixth grade for what they justified as a chemical imbalance,” he said.
Suicide Prevention Service of the Central Coast offers a 24-hour multilingual Suicide Crisis Line, which offers people who seek help an opportunity to have a human connection and speak with another person. Suicide Prevention Service focuses on prevention, intervention, and community education, breaking away from the stigma of suicide.
Michele McCarthy, a representative from the Suicide Prevention Service, said that it is important to know about the resources that are available to students.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that it happens to somebody else, when in fact most people have been affected by suicide,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy also stressed that one of the most important ways to combat depression is to encourage people to not be afraid of seeking help.
“It’s very human and normal to have these feelings,” McCarthy said. “We want people to understand that we are here to talk about it, in a safe place.”