In the year that has passed since their son committed suicide at UC Davis, Victor and Mary Ojakian are continuing their campaign to improve University mental health services and statistics – something the UC is trying to oblige.
Victor and Mary Ojakian said their son Adam, a physics major at UC Davis, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Dec. 17, 2004. The 21-year-old’s death could have been prevented, his parents claim, if counseling services had been more available to help him deal with the immense stress he was under because of grades and school requirements.
In response to both the Ojakians’ concerns and the growing trend of students suffering from depression, UCSB Counseling Services is trying to better and increase its programs. UC President Robert Dynes has promised similar improvements throughout the university system.
According to a UC Berkeley study released in December 2004, Mary Ojakian said, 10 percent of Berkeley graduate students claimed they had seriously considered suicide in the past. These numbers reflect similar trends among students at all UC campuses, whether graduate or undergraduate, she said.
“Stress triggers depression and what is more stressful than a university education?” Mary Ojakian said. “The stress students are under is really significant and students need to be given the right tools. The reason everyone has to be educated is because a depressed person has great difficulty acting on their own behalf. They are not likely to go to counseling services. They don’t have the energy to say ‘I need to be seen right now.'”
Victor Ojakian said his son spent several nights a week studying until 3 a.m. for a required computer-programming course where the highest grade obtained was a 40 percent. He said his son failed the class in fall 2003 and struggled with his grades in the two subsequent quarters, falling from a grade point average of 3.0 to 2.0.
Adam Ojakian received a letter from the UC Davis administration in summer 2003 warning that he might not graduate if his grades continued to decline, Victor Ojakian said. He said the process of informing students of poor academic standing and warning them about graduation status are unnecessarily harsh. The current process fails to take into consideration the emotional effects such news will have on students.
During the public comment period of the Sept. 21 UC Regents meeting at UC Berkeley, Victor and Mary Ojakian implored the Regents to reexamine the mental health issues of students across the University as well as improve current services.
Victor Ojakian asked the Regents to release more comprehensive data on suicides in the UC. Currently, he said, the statistics offered do not give sufficient detail. Recording information such as a student’s age, gender, major, grade status or race could help trace the causes behind their suicide. For instance, if students in a particular major were found to commit suicide more frequently than others, department heads could take appropriate action to ensure the safety of students.
“There is a problem with the way UCs compile [their statistics],” Victor Ojakian said. “They need more classifications … We’re trying to make sure data is gathered and that it remains public so no one can run and hide – so we all know what’s going on.”
Besides better statistics, the Ojakians’ recommended to the Regents that the University establish surveys for freshmen asking them about health and behavioral issues. The Ojakians also asked the UC to reduce excessive homework assignments, which can lead to sleep deprivation and mania.
Another problem with mental health services is the lack of information offered to students on how to identify the symptoms of depression, Mary Ojakian said.
“Students really need to be made aware of symptoms,” Mary Ojakian said. “Adam worked for the campus bus systems and had four or five close friends. They never talked about suicide, but if they had been trained to notice the symptoms, Adam could have been helped.”
According to the National Mental Health Association, symptoms of depression include fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, irritability, persistent sadness or anxiety and thoughts of suicide or death. They also include loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed, reduced appetite and weight loss, sleeping too much or too little, and difficulty concentrating.
UCSB’s Director of Counseling Jeanne Stanford agreed more counseling services and information about mental health should be available to students.
Stanford said the number of students diagnosed with mental health problems at UCSB has increased by 20 percent each year in recent years. College students are more prone to commit suicide than other groups because of the increased pressures they face at a university, Stanford said.
“Eighty percent of issues that we see are stress-related, such as depression, anxiety and relationship issues,” Stanford said. “The stress of being at a competitive university and the transition made when starting school can often lead to a problem.”
Stanford said 10 percent of the UCSB student population attends counseling services where nine psychologists are available to provide individual counseling, stress management and support. Counseling Services received increased funding last April after students voted to pass an initiative to create a $5.85 student lock-in fee for the on-campus organization.
The wait to see a psychologist is currently one to one and a half weeks, with the exception of students who request immediate counseling, Stanford said. She said Counseling Services is working with different departments on campus to educate staff members about mental health issues. It is also offering stress management classes to students, she said.
“Destigmatizing therapy amongst students is very important” Stanford said. “We need to reach out to students and remove the stigma of therapy so more students will walk in and speak to somebody about how they’re feeling.”
Mary Ojakian said her son was a dedicated student and that his death greatly affected his friends and family. She said improvements to campus mental health resources could keep such tragedies from occurring.
“[Adam] loved his area of study and would not leave it,” Mary Ojakian said. “The world is a lesser place without Adam. We don’t want this to happen to anybody else.”