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Getting positive about depression on campus
The stresses of life, study, and work can trigger dark thoughts and moods. Some here hope to see increased focus on mental-health concerns among students, staff, and faculty

| 04 November 2004

Temina Madon is on a crusade. Depression among students at Berkeley is a serious problem, says the 27-year-old graduate student in visual neuroscience. “This campus has a lot of catching up to do,” she insists, if it is to keep pace with other top-tier universities that have made more aggressive efforts to address students’ mental health.


Grad student Temina Madon learned the hard way about the debilitating effect depression can have, not only on its sufferers but on the people around them. She now advocates for improved mental-health treatment on the Berkeley campus. (Peg Skorpinski photo)
Like many crusaders, Madon was drawn to her cause by a personal tragedy. In March 2003 her partner, a promising graduate student in biophysics, committed suicide. Madon’s partner (whose family prefers his name not be published) had ended their relationship abruptly and left graduate school to pursue a career in science journalism at a newspaper in the Midwest. After he had what Madon describes as “a major nervous breakdown,” the 27-year-old returned to graduate school, then committed suicide a month later.

Naturally, Madon was devastated. “I thought he was just pursuing his dreams,” says Madon of the young man’s decision to abandon his studies for journalism. “I’ve been frustrated,” she adds, “by the fact that a lot of the coverage of depression doesn’t acknowledge how in some cases, if it goes untreated, it can be lethal.”

Anecdotal reports suggest that at least six Berkeley students committed suicide during the 2002-03 academic year, a rate twice the national average for college-age Americans — which is already at its highest-ever recorded level. About two-thirds of those who commit suicide have depressive disorders, according to Susan Bell, a psychologist at the Tang Center. “Across the nation,” she says, “30,000 people commit suicide each year, including 5,000 in the 15- to 24 year-old age group.”

University counseling centers nationwide have experienced an increase in both the number of students seeking help and those who are presenting with more extreme psychological problems. Jeff Prince, director of the Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) unit of University Health Services, which provides psychological and psychiatric care for Berkeley undergraduate and graduate students, believes the former trend is attributable in part to the fact that “the stigma of seeking help for depression in college has generally lessened over the last 10 to 15 years.” On the other hand, says Prince, for many Berkeley students “seeking counseling is still not acceptable. They equate professional counseling with admitting a weakness or as violating a family or cultural norm.” Just as postponing a trip to the doctor for a minor ailment may lead to complications, failing to get counseling for an emotional condition can exacerbate developing or existing problems.

Prince cites higher tuition, the necessity for some students to work more hours to offset those elevated fees, and Berkeley’s increasingly competitive environment among the probable causes of higher levels of student stress. In addition, more than 60 percent of Berkeley students are the first in their families to attend college and typically feel great pressure to succeed. Students who come from tight-knit cultures may feel especially isolated, says Prince, because they don’t know many others like themselves at Berkeley.

The advent and popularity of prescription medication to address depression, bipolar illness, and other emotional and mental challenges means that “there are many more students on campus now who couldn’t have managed to be here 10 years ago,” Prince says. On the other hand, those students on medications may need ongoing support and medical monitoring. Also, some students experiment with their medications, Prince says, and when life seems to be going well, decide to stop taking their prescriptions without proper medical supervision. “This can result in erratic behavior,” he says, “crisis situations, or even hospitalization.”

If the immediate pressures of attending college aren’t difficult enough, 18- to 24-year-old students also experience the sense of unease that has infected this country like a low-grade flu in the last three years. Most university counseling centers across the nation, says Prince, have seen an increase in caseloads since 9/11 and the war in Iraq.

Grown-up stresses, grown-up problems

When it comes to emotional states ranging from occasional moodiness to full-blown depression, students aren’t alone in their susceptibility to external factors like war and societal malaise. Economic stressors likely have an impact as well: Kathleen Handron, manager of CARE Services for Faculty and Staff (also part of UHS), believes that adult members of the campus community may well be stressed by the successive state budget cuts that have “profoundly affected” the campus, resulting in losses of positions as well as cutbacks and reorganizations.

Not everyone reacts to these and other stressors in the same way, of course. “Depression,” Handron says, “is a brain-related illness, a disorder that certain people are predisposed to. The majority of the population never gets depressed.” But for the estimated 16 percent who are not as fortunate, she adds, “an accumulation of stressful personal, social, community, and world events can trigger their pre-existing vulnerability.”

When a person is depressed, his or her brain chemistry changes. Despair and hopelessness may powerfully color their perceptions of life, while they experience such other depressive symptoms as persistent feelings of worthlessness, increased anxiety or irritability, constant fatigue, difficulty concentrating, unexplained aches and pains, or thoughts of death and suicide. With treatment, says Handron, these negative thought patterns can change, with research showing that the most effective treatment for depression is a combination of medication and therapy.

While she and others who deal with workplace mental health understand that depression is a “potentially deadly mental illness,” Handron says, suicide is only the most dramatic denouement a depressed individual may experience. “It’s important to recognize,” she asserts, “that the majority of depressed people, even though they may not kill themselves, are nonetheless profoundly unhappy and find it a struggle to function at home and at work.”

Resources on campus can help students, faculty, and staff recognize the symptoms of depression in themselves and lead them to treatment options that can have a marked impact on their daily lives. (For information, see “Free campus screening for depression.”)

Treating grad students like human beings

Depression affects not only its sufferers but also the people around them. Temina Madon says that the suicide of her partner has informed her life’s path “in every way.” While she finishes her thesis and applies for post-doctoral positions in scientific policy, she also is trying to find time to begin interpreting the results of a mental-health survey, funded by the Graduate Assembly, that she spearheaded this past April. Nearly 10,000 Berkeley grad students were asked to assess their own mental health and their satisfaction with on-campus psychology services; the response rate was 32 percent.

“Graduate students play more of a role in the education and research missions of the university than undergrads do,” says Madon. “They’re expected to contribute a lot more.” At the same time, she says, graduate students, in general, have more complications and stresses in their lives. Often, by the time students are in graduate school, they are in committed relationships, and many have children. Some of them already have the responsibility of caring for an elder parent. Many live isolated lives, tied to neither their departments nor their peers as they engage in solitary academic research.

Preliminary findings from the graduate-student survey have yielded one piece of information that Madon calls “not unpredictable.” Respondents reported, she says, that “dysfunctional relationships with their professors cause a huge amount of stress in their lives.” Those graduate students who conduct research often rely on their supervising professor for intellectual self-confidence as well as funding, while professors, in turn, rely on their students to teach and to produce research results for publications and grants.

“A lot of professors don’t treat their graduate students as human beings — they won’t discuss family problems or relationship issues,” says Madon. She offers that it would make a difference if professors showed concern about their GSIs and other grad-student colleagues, making enquiries when contact with a graduate student becomes erratic or infrequent. “A lot of the time professors won’t say, ‘I noticed you haven’t been coming in lately. Is something wrong? Are you depressed?’”

Improving their understanding of the warning signs of depression in others is an important step that all members of the campus community can take. But having a reasonably clear view of one’s own mental state is even more important.

Madon, who recognized her own depression a year ago, began working with a therapist and taking medication. “My loss was very complicated,” she explains. “Over the course of several years, my partner ended our relationship, moved away, and then died.” The experience, she says, “has totally changed my perspective and the way I view depression.” Acknowledging that she had previously been biased against taking medicine for depression and resistant to viewing the problem as a biochemical imbalance, Madon has now decided to “manage it the same way someone with diabetes does.”

Madon credits UHS with helping her to channel her anger and grief into something productive — a real sea change for someone who used to “make fun of counseling,” considering it “a huge waste of time.”

“There are a lot of things that can be done to raise the quality of life here at Berkeley,” says Madon, “and prioritizing mental health, I think, is a big part of that.”