UC Berkeley News


Recognizing the signs of student depression and distress
Multi-pronged effort to train campus community involves Grad Divison, Tang Center, and a chancellor's advisory committee

| 02 May 2007

Spring-green stickers are sprouting around the campus as part of a campaign to help students who are depressed or suffering from other mental illnesses to locate faculty and staff members trained to help.


Nearly 600 administrators, faculty, graduate-student instructors, resident advisors, and peer counselors across campus already have completed the "Look for Signs" training program since it began in 2006. The program is part of a larger project launched in 2005 by University Health Services with a federal grant.

Like Neighborhood Watch stickers placed in homeowners' windows to prevent crime, these stickers are on the campus doors and workspaces of those who complete the training course. The round stickers show a hunched-shouldered figure being comforted by a friend or confidant and say, "I look for the signs. I can help." About 100 stickers are now posted on campus.

"We all experience times in our life when things are rough, and we don't know how to solve our problems," says Peggy Yang, project director for the Suicide Prevention and Depression Awareness Project at the Tang Center, University Health Services' primary service site. "Having people on campus who are trained to look for the warning signs that someone is in distress is important because they can reach out to students before students lose hope. Sometimes the best help is the person who makes it easier for us to get help from mental-health experts."

A recent training session proved serendipitous for five dozen employees in the Graduate Division, which serves more than 10,000 students and oversees 105 graduate programs.

Months before the April 16 shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, the Graduate Division scheduled an April 18 training session for about 60 of its employees so they could learn to identify the warning signals of depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses.

As more details about the gunman's mindset emerged, the training session with Yang and Linda Zaruba, both psychologists with Counseling and Psychological Services, a division of University Health Services, became acutely relevant.

"We were all somewhat shell-shocked [by the news from Virginia Tech], and so this training was very appropriate," says Jane Fink, assistant to the dean of the Graduate Division, where a 2004 survey reflected a national trend in which graduate students suffer high levels of stress because of academic pressures, among other issues.

One thing Fink was surprised to learn is that it's okay to ask a troubled student if he or she is considering suicide. Indeed, it's recommended. "You don't have to be afraid to ask that question," Fink says.

The "Look for the Signs" campaign also includes new posters - also green, with the same logo as the stickers - that are being offered to those trained in the program so they can hang them in accessible locations in their departments. UHS also is giving posters to research labs and other places on campus where people work long hours and may not know about mental-health services on campus. The posters list these telltale signs of clinical depression, the most common and most treatable mental-health problem:

. Increased anxiety or irritability
. Feeling unnecessarily worthless or hopeless
. Withdrawing from other people
. Fatigue, lack of energy
. Changes in weight, eating habits, and sleeping patterns

The Berkeley program is being funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, with matching funds from the campus. But with federal funding for the three-year project due to run out next year, the campus is developing an online "Look for the Signs" training session, not unlike Berkeley's online workshops on sexual harassment and ethics.

The campus is setting up the online training, says Yang, "to sustain all the work that we've done on campus. We may only have funding to pay for three years of this program, but we can create a tool that the campus can use in perpetuity."

Yang urges campus members who encounter students who seem depressed or suicidal to contact a member of the Counseling and Psychological Services team.

"Don't feel you have to handle everything yourself," Yang says. "I always remind people that sometimes we need to stand out from the crowd. We have to remember that we are all people with feelings and needs - we can do so much good if we see that first, and then work within our job duties on campus."

Limits on information-sharing

Working with University Health Services to educate the campus about mental health and to establish protocols for handling student cases is the Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health, which assesses trends in student mental health and advises Chancellor Birgeneau and his cabinet about them, and increases opportunities for reducing risks and raising support for Berkeley students with mental-health problems. The committee meets two to four times a semester.

On May 24 the committee will hold a conference "to establish a clear protocol on what to do in each situation, beginning with stress and [progressing] through danger to self and others," says Mary Ann Mason, dean of the Graduate Division and co-chair of the committee. Any protocol must adhere to the law, which protects confidentiality.

"Even if a student is evaluated as a danger to self, legally there are limits to whether you can pass that information on," Mason says. Ultimately, the committee would like to see everyone who works closely with students on campus trained to look out for the signs of depression.

The "Look for the Signs" program is targeted largely at graduate students, in part because of the following statistics that reflect those found on campuses nationwide.

. In a 2004 survey of UC Berkeley graduate students, 45 percent of respondents say they had experienced an emotional or stress-related problem within the past year that significantly affected their well-being and/or academic performance.
. 9.9 percent of respondents say they had seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months.
. Fewer than 2 percent say they would first contact a mental-health provider or a member of the faculty to discuss an emotional or stress-related problem.
. International students were less aware of mental-health services and less likely to use them.
. Female respondents were more likely to report feeling hopeless, exhausted, sad, or depressed in the last 12 months.

Chemistry professor Heino Nitsche, co-chair of the student-mental-health advisory committee, says he has the "I Look for the Signs" sticker on his office door. In his opening classes he assures students that depression is nothing to be ashamed of. "If you had a cold, you would treat it, so why not depression? I've sent several students who have collapsed emotionally to the Tang Center, and they thanked me."

Online screenings for depression and other illnesses are available at www.uhs.berkeley.edu/onlinescreenings. For assessment, counseling, medication, consultations, and emergencies, campus members can contact Counseling and Psychological Services at 642-9494. The 24-hour national helpline for suicide prevention is (800) 273 TALK.

For more information about the "Look for the Signs program, visit www.uhs.berkeley.edu/lookforthesigns.