UC reaching out to depressed students online

The anonymous online conversation began after the student revealed that he planned to kill himself.

“What should I do?” the sophomore asked a counselor at his Midwest college. “I figure you will probably tell me that killing myself is not a good idea, and I know that. But it does seem like a good option at the moment.”

The counselor hoped to persuade him to come in to see her, but first she had to build trust. They continued the discussion on the website, a tool used by the school to reach troubled students.

“It sounds as though you are very stressed and sometimes just having a safe ‘ear to bend’ is helpful?,” she wrote back.

It took more than a month, but eventually the student walked into the counseling center.

The online effort had worked.

In the fall, about 70 universities nationwide will have the service, including all 10 University of California undergraduate campuses. It is designed to bridge conversation between students who need help and those equipped to provide it.

Created by the New York City-based American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the program aims to identify troubled students anonymously through their responses to a voluntary survey they will receive a link to in an email that will be sent to everyone admitted to UC.

If survey answers raise red flags, a counselor will initiate contact and invite the student to continue communicating, still anonymously, via a dialogue on the website.

The goal is to have the student agree to a meeting. Studies suggest that about 80% of students who commit suicide had not sought services from counseling centers on their campuses, said Ann Haas, a project specialist for the foundation.

“Year after year we have students dying on campus from suicide,” she said. “Did anybody know that this student was having a hard time? The answer is often no — nobody did.”

In the 2009-10 school year, there were 739 suicide attempts by UC students. Eleven were successful, according to the University of California.

The figures are considered conservative, with the universities relying on families to report deaths as suicides, said Steve Montiel, a UC spokesman.

The pressures of college can propel even the most seemingly prepared students into feelings of isolation and despair, said Elizabeth Gong-Guy, director of the UCLA counseling center.

Although counselors are able to reach some, others who need help remain on their own.

“They’re not aware that help is available or [they’ve] decided, without connecting with professional services, that everything is hopeless,” she said. “That is part of the illness of depression — cognitive distortions that people have when they feel hopeless and helpless.”

The program reaches students in a non-intrusive manner, allowing them to first share what they are feeling via the survey and then decide whether or not to seek help if a counselor suggests it.

For the last three years, the program has been available to students, residents and faculty physicians at UC San Diego’s medical school. More than 12,000 invitations to take the survey were sent out; about 660 were returned.

Of those, 8.5% indicated a high risk of suicide and 23% showed signs of depressive symptoms and a high likelihood of depression.

The service is particularly useful at the graduate and medical school level, where students and physicians are more prone to suicidal symptoms, said Christine Moutier, an assistant dean for student affairs and an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego.

The program is paired with educational sessions focusing on student and physician burnout, she said. At the beginning of each term, officials from the school explain the program and stress that it protects the user’s identity. Email addresses are encrypted throughout the process, and the administration has decided to never, under any circumstances, remove the encryptions.

That guarantee of privacy encourages those who need it to seek help. “But it’s still entirely up to them,” Moutier said.

The service soon will be available on mobile devices, and the foundation is working on programs for veterans and active-duty military, corporations and law enforcement agencies. In California, the program is paid for through the voter-approved Mental Health Services Act, a state tax initiative passed in 2004.

Counselors report that students who participate in the online dialogue are four times more likely to seek help in person than those who just take the survey, foundation officials said.

Another student at a Midwest university told a counselor online that she was failing classes and would snap at her boyfriend over small issues. She wrote that she cried frequently and sometimes cut herself.

“It makes me feel like a bad person…. I don’t know what to do,” she wrote.

“I think we can help you feel better in relation to the depressive feelings you have been having and help you gain some new academic skills that can relieve your worry about failure,” the counselor replied.

“I’ll think about coming in,” the student replied.

A few weeks later, she did.

Originally written and published: http://www.latimes.com

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