Nov. 7-20, 2003
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Warren examines insanity pleas in criminal defense cases
Archaeology, architecture joined by theories of culture, ideas
Collaborating, responding to student depression
Human vision the model for video image analyst
Aunspaugh fellows reunion at Fayerweather Gallery
Nystrom and Tilghman to read from new works
Grad student directs her growth as artist

Collaborating, responding to student depression

Russ Federman
Photos 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” below).

Penny Rue
Penny Rue

Dean 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 needed help.”

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.


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