Collaborating, responding to student
by Peggy Harrison
Student depression and suicide are shared concerns of Russ
Federman (above) and Penny Rue (below). Under their leadership
in June the University hosted a sold-out national conference
on student suicide.
By Virginia E. Carter
Elizabeth Shin was a sophomore
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when she took her
life by setting herself on fire in her dorm room. Shin’s
tragic death and the subsequent lawsuit filed by her parents against
MIT were the subject of an April 28, 2002, cover story in the
New York Times Magazine.
For many professionals who deal with the emotional health of college
and university students, details of Shin’s tragic illness
and death crystallized work long under way to reach out to students
and encourage them to get help when they find themselves feeling
depressed, anxious, hopeless or overwhelmed.
Although not always the case, severe depression is often the precursor
to suicide and attempted suicide. Even in milder forms, depression
can interfere with everyday activities and relationships. That’s
why Russ Federman, director of Counseling and Psychological Services
in the Department
of Student Health, had his staff set up shop in Newcomb 187
on Oct. 9 — National Depression Screening Day — to
provide students with in-person depression screening. Students
who prefer anonymity also can go online anytime to complete a
self-assessment screening questionnaire (see “Student Resourses”
of Students Penny Rue shares Federman’s concerns for
students’ well-being. The two have looked for more ways
to collaborate on outreach and assistance to students and have
opened channels for interaction between their two offices. Once
a week, for example, CAPS staff members go to the office of Residence
Life to meet on a walk-in basis with any resident staff member
who may have questions or concerns. CAPS remains bound by patient
confidentiality, but the discussions with residence hall staff
and others who see students regularly help CAPS extend its reach.
Federman said depression and anxiety are common experiences among
college students. Citing data from a 2002 national survey conducted
by the American College Health Association, he said that 45 percent
of the nation’s students reported being affected by at least
one episode of depression during the previous year.
At U.Va. during the 2002-03 academic year, Federman said more
than 1,600 different individuals sought treatment or consultation
through CAPS. More than a third of newly diagnosed students presented
depressive disorders. Additionally, 41 U.Va. students were psychiatrically
hospitalized during the year.
“Fortunately, the stigma associated with depression and
mental illness has decreased, but it hasn’t totally gone
away,” said Rue. “For students who are having trouble,
the myth of perfectionism often is at work – if they are
having difficulty with school work or relationships, they think
they should be able to fix their problems on their own. I like
to tell them that, in truth, it is a sign of strength to ask for
To determine if students are depressed, Rue often asks questions
about eating and sleep patterns, energy levels and feelings of
self-worth. As a guide, she uses the Beck Depression Inventory,
a list of 21 questions, the answers to which can provide a general
gauge of whether a person could benefit from seeing a CAPS counselor.
By increasing their collaboration, Rue and Federman hope to build
a stronger safety net for students. They also hope faculty and
others who interact frequently with students will be vigilant
for signs a student is depressed – not coming to class,
for instance, or uncharacteristic withdrawn behavior. “Often,
all you have to say is ‘I’m concerned about you. Are
you doing OK?’ to initiate a conversation,” said Rue.
If members of the U.Va. community want to consult with CAPS before
speaking with a student, Federman encourages them to call CAPS
for a consultation either over the telephone or in person.
“The bottom line is that CAPS is here to help,” said
Federman. “College life is stressful enough without struggling
to cope alone with a psychological condition. Our services are
fully confidential and offered at no charge beyond the initial
student health fee.”
Although U.Va.’s rates of suicide and mental illness are
lower than the national average, Federman and Rue want no student’s
life to be hindered by mild depression or to spiral out of control
with an illness as severe and devastating as Elizabeth Shin’s.