Palo Alto Weekly

Notes & Comments - September 19, 2007

Helping depressed students

by Don Kazak

The crowded auditorium at the University of California, San Francisco hushed when former Palo Alto Mayor Vic Ojakian began speaking last September.

The room became quiet because Ojakian was telling the University of California Board of Regents about the suicide of his son, Adam, almost two years earlier while a student at UC-Davis.

Ojakian said UC campuses need better mental-health services for depressed or suicidal students.

Then-UC President Robert Dynes surprised Ojakian by making a strong pledge to increase student mental-health services throughout the huge, 10-campus, 209,000-student system.

Dynes' statement wasn't just lip service to a distraught father.

The regents approved an increase in student fees earlier this year, including funds to expand mental-health services.

An oversight committee has been formed to assist with and guide the expansion, despite concerns that the funding may fall short of the need.

Those services across the UC system are uneven, said Michael Young, co-chair of the oversight committee and vice chancellor for student services at UC-Santa Barbara.

But the campuses are getting only about one-tenth of the money they need to fully expand their mental health services, Young said.

"It will be a two-year build-up," he added. "We need to respond. We can't nickel and dime our way to that level."

Many indicators show that more students than ever need mental-health support. The number of suicides of young people, age 15-24, in California has increased 7 percent since 1999, Ojakian said. A frightening 4,600 young Californians attempt suicide each year.

The build-up of services at UC will take a few years, but it will happen, Young said. "We have a road map and we have an obligation to respond," he said.

"It will take a reasonable amount of money to implement reasonable programs."

Young credits Ojakian with helping get the effort started. "I think his impact has been significant," Young said.

Ojakian is working at other levels, too.

He addressed the Foothill-DeAnza Community College Board of Trustees back in May 2006. That meeting was filled with students who were concerned about a change in grading policy.

But when the students heard what Ojakian had to say, they applauded him enthusiastically.

Now, the 13 community colleges in the Bay Area have formed a consortium to improve and expand student mental health services. Melanie Hale, director of psychological services at Foothill, said some of the campuses have little or no mental health programs.

Working at all levels he can find, Ojakian also met with a state board, called the Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission. That group announced in June that $60 million will be made available to increase mental health services — $34 million for California colleges and universities and $26 million for K-12 schools. Ojakian spoke at the press conference in Sacramento when the funding was announced.

Momentum for action has built and Ojakian has been part of that.

"Instead of convincing people (of the need), the money is now earmarked," Ojakian said. "Now the question is how to build the best programs."

The tireless quest of Ojakian and his wife, Mary, began after their son, Adam, died before Christmas in 2004. Ojakian became convinced that UC-Davis didn't have enough of a support system for students going through academic or other stress.

Mary Ojakian became a board member of the Northern California chapter of the Association for Suicide Prevention, which will hold its annual "Out of the Dark" walk in San Francisco later this month.

Along the way, Ojakian said many people have come up to him to thank him after hearing him speak at meetings. "Most people's lives have been affected (by suicide or depression of a family member or friend), but they haven't talked about it," he said.

"The pieces are starting to come together to get us where we want to go," he added. "We'll know we've done something when we see those numbers (of suicides) go down."

Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be e-mailed at dkazak@paweekly.com. ?? ?? ?? ??

Comments

Posted by Susan, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 19, 2007 at 10:16 am

Thank you, Don Kazak, for pointing out the ravages of this disease, and MOnica's plight.

Monica, I wish you the very, very best.

Perhaps this is the time for Stanford University or some other hospital to step in with a pro bono offering of help.

How about someone creating a fund to help with this surgery? I don't have the time, but would be happy to contribute if a fund was put in place.


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