Sacramento-area colleges reach out on mental health

Last week, thousands of UC Davis students, alumni, faculty and staff gathered in the evening twilight, burning candles in tribute to the six fellow University of California students slain by an emotionally disturbed young man on May 23.

Elliot Rodger’s shooting rampage in Isla Vista that Friday night took the lives of six UC Santa Barbara students and left 13 others injured. The massacre, like others before it, has fueled discussion about what families, schools and society at large can do to identify and address mental health issues among young adults.

The issue resonates in Sacramento, which has seen its share of violence and tragedy on college campuses in recent years stemming from mental illness.

In 2009, Sacramento State student Quran Mahammed Jones, then 19, beat his roommate to death with a baseball bat in their dorm room. A court determined he was insane at the time of the attack, and he was committed to a state psychiatric hospital.

Two years ago, UC Davis student Linnea Lomax was found hanging from a tree along the American River. Lomax, also 19, was reported missing in June 2012 after she suffered a mental breakdown during finals, according to her family. She was treated for 10 days at a mental health facility in Sacramento before she disappeared. Her death was ruled a suicide.

Across the Sacramento region, about 475 adults between the ages of 18 and 24 committed suicide between 1991 and 2012. That number reflects a suicide rate almost 20 percent higher than the statewide average for that age group, according to California Department of Public Health data. Between 2006 and 2012, 3,300 young adults in the region were treated at emergency rooms after intentionally harming themselves.

In the past three years, both UC Davis and California State University, Sacramento, have bolstered mental health services for students, using federal and state tax dollars to add counseling staff and programs that encourage students in crisis to seek help.

During Thursday’s vigil at UC Davis, university counselors spread out among the crowd, in a show of support and to quietly share information about the array of campus mental health services students can access for free.

The university’s mental health team in April launched a website, “Each Aggie Matters,” part of a broader effort to change how students perceive mental illness. The site features UC Davis students pledging to support people trying to cope with mental and emotional problems.

In December, the university launched “Just in Case” – a mobile-friendly website – that offers students information about mental health resources based on their answers to questions. The menu has choices that include “I’m struggling to cope,” “I’m worried about a friend” and “I might hurt myself.”

Struggling with mental health issues during college isn’t unusual. Thirty percent of students feel so overwhelmed at some point during their college career that they feel they can’t function, said Zach Ward, a psychologist at UC Davis.

“An academic program like UC Davis has can be extremely stressful to students,” Ward said. “They already have to be successful to get here, but it is a significant step up from high school or junior college.” Stress is increased because students are still “developing a strong sense of who they are and what they want for their future,” he said.

Ward said he hopes the campaign to remove the stigma from mental health issues will give students the courage to walk across the wide veranda of North Hall, through the double doors and up the steep gray steps to the counselor offices.

Those who visit Ward for a counseling session can expect to plop down on a cream-colored leather loveseat that has been in his family for years and to admire an antique Japanese wooden screen that once belonged to his grandmother. “When someone comes into my office, I want them to be comfortable,” he said.

The first visit is mostly informational. Counselors ask about family dynamics, social support and the level of stress the student is feeling. Students upset because they believe they aren’t meeting their academic potential may need three sessions, Ward said, while students with deeper issues may need up to 10. Most student have five to six sessions.

The center offers individual and group counseling, as well as workshops on coping strategies. About 30 percent of the students who come in for counseling are referred to outside agencies or doctors for longer-term outpatient or inpatient care.

Amanda Lipp is one of the faces of the university’s new campaign. Lipp, now 22 and a senior at UC Davis, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder four years ago, after her freshman year at Chico State.

In a recent interview, Lipp recalled falling “into a hole” of mental illness during her freshman year. She took a leave of absence shortly afterward, and remembers believing she was the main character in a TV show and that all her friends and acquaintances were actors. She said she kept looking for the cameras.

Her apartment-mate took her to a mental health unit after he found her “flinging his Xbox games out of the windows.” She said she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and spent two months in inpatient treatment at a hospital and one month in outpatient care.

She said the diagnosis ultimately helped empower her and now motivates her to help others. As the youngest board member with the California chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, Lipp tours college and high school campuses telling her story. She’s also prominently featured in a video on the “Each Aggie Matters” website, where she tells the story of her descent into illness and her recovery.

“I’m helping myself by helping others,” she says on camera.

Sacramento State also has ramped up its mental health offerings in recent years, concentrating on suicide prevention. The school has drawn on state and federal grants to add a mental health case manager and a counselor who meets with students in immediate need without an appointment.

The grants have been used to teach staff members to train faculty, students and other staff how to identify the warning signs of suicide and engage people at risk, said Karen Durst, a university psychologist.

Counselors offer workshops on insomnia and managing depression and visit classrooms to talk about these issues, Durst said. The school has increased the number of group counseling sessions and offers condensed four-session therapy for students working through grief, breakups or stress-related issues.

Peer health educators also are helping. The students organize an annual DeStress Fest during finals week, where stressed-out students can have their faces painted, take a turn on the dunk tank, jump around in a bounce house or pet a visiting Labrador or poodle between tests.

Durst said the university doesn’t track suicide rates, but that the number of students coming in for mental health services has increased significantly in the last two years.

“To me, that means it is working,” she said.