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Opinion

Column: UC Irvine and other colleges are increasing mental health services

A new contingent of recent high school graduates is now enjoying a unique time — a time they’ve only been able to imagine until now: that magic summer before setting off on the next big chapter of their lives.

It’s an exciting moment, the culmination of years of effort, filled with promise and potential. Throughout the summer, these young people will begin departing on their journeys, some to far-off universities, others remaining closer to home while they work toward their long-term goals.

For most of their lives, these kids have heard that the college experience is special and amazing, and that once they cross that dorm-room threshold they’ll have the time of their lives.

For many college students — my sons included — this turns out to be true.

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But college life can be an uncomfortable fit. Some students struggle academically, while others feel homesick or alienated in an unfamiliar environment. They might endure bouts of anxiety and depression, or, heaven forbid, suffer a traumatic event, such as a sexual assault.

And it certainly doesn’t help matters when everyone else, it seems, is having a great time.

Some of these issues might have carried over from students’ high school years.

The newest Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released in June, while containing some good news — including declines in sexual activity and drug use — also indicates the continuation of troubling trends regarding stress, depression and suicidal ideation among teens.

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When teens enter college those problems don’t go away; indeed, they can become amplified because of the added pressures of performing in a new, academically rigorous environment, coupled with the challenge of making new friends.

For others, the problems manifest only after they start college; that can be true even for students that were relatively successful and seemingly well-adjusted in high school.

Parents who sense something amiss might grapple with how to respond.

Do they adopt a wait-and-watch approach, hoping that the situation rights itself in time?

Should they intervene as soon as their kids start to struggle?

How do they negotiate being supportive without being overbearing, concerned but not paranoid, helpful yet not controlling?

The good news for worried parents is that colleges and universities are increasingly taking a proactive approach to helping students work through academic and emotional challenges. In recent years schools have been initiating or supplementing programs and student service departments with the clear intention of preventing troubled students from falling through the cracks and ultimately failing.

These efforts have been bolstered by many state governments’ growing willingness to increase student mental health care funding. In California, pending state legislation would provide additional resources to schools for more counselors and outreach services.

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Universities aren’t addressing this merely out of the goodness of their hearts. It is in many ways a competitive issue, as high dropout rates are a big ding on a school’s reputation, and an aggressive approach to helping struggling students is a way to improve retention and graduation rates.

Students themselves are also pushing for greater attention to the issue. At a gathering of Cal State University student leaders last fall, for instance, improving campus mental health services topped the list of priorities.

Regardless of the motivation, it’s a positive sign that higher education is taking the problem seriously.

Consider UC Irvine.

UCI’s Student Success Initiatives, which has operated in its current form for about a year-and-a-half, offers counseling, workshops and other services to typically at-risk populations, including low-income, transfer, older adult and parent students. It does interventions for students struggling academically, and attempts to provide campus connections for those who feel socially isolated.

“Nearly 40% of first-year students might be depressed at one time or another,” said SSI Director Kevin Huie. “A number of factors come into play. The pace is challenging, the material is difficult, it’s more difficult to find help.

Sometimes they don’t know how to study. Sometimes it’s picking a major they don’t like. They become lost a little bit.

“That’s where advising is really important. If it’s severe we get them into counseling. If we think it’s temporary and not too severe, we meet with them and give them action items.”

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Despite such signs of progress, we’re still not where we need to be. On many campuses student mental health services remain woefully underfunded and counselors are in short supply.

Students in need too often find support services either lacking in scope or difficult to access. Some community colleges don’t have counseling departments at all, and at many four-year schools there are still often long waits to see overburdened counselors.

So more needs to be done, and in this parents have a role to play beyond advocating for their own children’s immediate needs.

They can help keep pressure on the state and the higher education system to make students’ mental health a priority and make it clear that schools with a solid support network will top the lists of campuses that will receive their money.

That should get their attention.

Patrice Apodaca is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.


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