Documenting Students' Mental Health Struggles
As Kathy Welch and her husband Tom were driving back from a short trip up to Big Bear on Dec. 31, 2017, she received a text from her neighbor telling her to get back home as soon as possible. Kathy called her neighbor and was told to pull over. Her neighbor handed the phone over to a police officer and the first thing Kathy asked the officer was, “Is my son dead?” Her son, 23-year-old Santa Monica College student David Sliff, after years of suffering from depression, had committed suicide.
Surrounded by photographs of Sliff, Welch opened up about her son's struggle to overcome depression, in the hope it will help others. "I've been an ICU nurse for 22 years," Welch said. "I typically see this on the other side helping people who survive suicide attempts."
Sliff had been clinically diagnosed with depression in 2016. According to Welch, her son contacted numerous doctors and applied to clinical trials in an attempt to find a drug that would cure him of his depression. Sliff felt the solution to his problem was not talk therapy, but medication that would cure a chemical imbalance in his brain. He researched various drugs with the help of his psychiatrist and sometimes on his own. He tried a variety of drugs, but nothing worked. "He tried desperately to get help, but for some reason he couldn't," Welch said. "I don't know why."
A sensitive and trusting person, Welch said Sliff was extremely hurt by his schoolmates' reaction when he revealed in middle school that he was gay. "He told one person and then the whole school knew and the baseball team showed up at my front door saying, ‘David’s gay. David’s gay,’” Welch recalled. Sliff was bullied for coming out, though Welch does not think he killed himself because he was gay.
Depression is one of those taboo topics that people avoid for myriad reasons. Yet, 27.1% of college students surveyed admitted to having suicidal thoughts at some point in their lives, according to the Spring 2017 American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment. And 10.4% of students had attempted suicide at least once in their life. Statistics among LGBTQ students are even more dismaying. According to the Healthy Minds Study, which surveyed 14,000 students, 23.2% of LGBTQ students had suicidal thoughts in the past year, compared with 8.1% of heterosexual students.
And among community college students, nearly half reported experiencing at least one mental health issue, with depression and anxiety being the most common, according to a 2016 report by the Wisconsin Hope Lab. These rates were higher than those reported by students at four-year colleges and universities.
At SMC, the Center for Wellness and Wellbeing on the main campus offers short-term counseling and referrals. Most students are seen for one to three therapy sessions with the center providing referrals for longer-term needs, according to Susan Fila, the center's director.
Additionally, the center offers crisis walk-in hours from 9-11 a.m. and from 2-4 p.m. There is no waitlist, and students are seen on a first-come, first-served basis. The availability of crisis intervention is mentioned on the center's website, but as of the writing of this article, it does not specify the walk-in hours.
From 2015 to 2016, the number of crisis walk-ins at the center jumped 29%, according to Fila. Additionally, the percentage of students seen at the center with thoughts of suicide increased from 15% in 2015 to 21% in 2017.
Despite this increase, the center only has two full-time licensed psychologists, two part-time psychologists (who work for a combined total of 18 hours a week between them), and two unlicensed interns who are supervised by licensed staff. Special programs on campus, such as the Latino Center, African American Collegians, the Veteran Resource Center, Guardian Scholars, and the Center for Students with Disabilities have a part-time psychologist on staff.
In the 2017 calendar year, the center served 960 students and scheduled almost 3,500 appointments. Fila has no doubt that "if we doubled our staff, we'd double our numbers [of students served]."
Santa Monica College has received a new grant of $225,000 from the State Chancellor’s Office to expand mental health services, according to Fila, but the school cannot use that money for direct services. Instead, SMC will use that money towards training, outreach and raising awareness. By the end of the semester, they hope to have “Mind Care” kiosks on campus that can assess students for anxiety and depression and educate students on campus resources.
A new campus club and peer-to-peer support group, Active Minds, aims to help students dealing with mental health issues. It is a peer-to-peer support group. “We’re trying to get people comfortable with the idea of speaking out about [mental health] and… I believe that comes from seeing students that represent the comfort of talking about it," said Monica Salazar, Vice President of the SMC chapter. The club is planning student outreach events for May, which is Mental Health Awareness month,.
Earlier this year, Edgar Mauricio Gonzales resigned from his position as Associated Students Vice President, and revealed his struggles with depression. He grew up with a violent father who left when Gonzalez was 13 years old, and a mother who became distant. Gonzalez said that he blamed himself.
Growing up in a rough neighborhood Gonzales got involved with the wrong crowd and began using crystal meth. At 26, he feels the effect of not having a father around. Gonzales now has a daughter, but cannot see her because of an incident involving his daughter's mother and his previous alcohol problems. “I get seasonal depression because during Christmas, I’m always by myself," Gonzalez said. "Thanksgiving I’m always by myself, and TV and social media plays a lot on it [with] everyone with their families and stuff.”
Gonzalez sought help at the center. While he appreciates the work being done, he wishes the staff was more diverse and inclusive so that students from different backgrounds feel more comfortable seeking help. "I feel that they don’t fully understand where I come from," Gonzalez said, recalling how a white female therapist looked scared when he said he had been shot at. Because of his financial situation, Gonzales hasn’t been able to find the professional help he knows he needs. Last year, Gonzales wanted to commit suicide but stopped himself when he remembered his daughter.
Welch has a message to those who have friends who may be suffering from depression. “Reach out… don’t be afraid to ask questions," she said. "If you sense that your friend is changing, if they’re getting more isolated -- isolation is a big sign. Getting rid of your possessions is another big sign.”
Salazar has a similar message: “The best thing to do is ask direct questions in a very neutral tone. You don’t want to sound like you’re pressuring someone.”
“One thing that I would like to tell people is just don’t be afraid to be weak," Gonzalez said. "That masculinity bullshit. Why can’t I express my emotions? Why can’t I cry? Don’t be afraid to be weak and cry because at the end of the day you’re stronger than other people because you’re willing to lower your pride. Now I feel better I feel like I can cry… My life matters.”
Hundreds of friends and family attended Sliff's funeral, which was a celebration of his life. Friends spoke of how much Sliff meant to them and how he had helped them through their hard times, some occasions being only weeks before Sliff took his own life.
Sliff's bedroom is still full of his things. Welch sometimes stays in her son’s room to feel a sense of connection with him. “I was so proud of him, even after he died, because of all the people that he helped," Welch said. After his death, his family found a suicide note on his computer. "Mom," it read. "I’m not prone to writing suicide notes, but I was born and lived a depressant life and nothing’s helped. I’m sorry for the heartache."
The Center for Wellness and Wellbeing is located in room 110 in the Liberal Arts Building. You can contact the 24/7 emotional support phone line at (800) 691-6003.
In case of an emergency, contact the school police at (310) 434-4300.
The Active Minds club meets every Thursday from 11:15 to 12:30 in room 124A at the Counseling Complex.
Other resources include the Trevor Project, which offers crisis intervention and suicide prevention: 1-866-488-7386.