UC San Diego webinar takes a ‘A Deep Look’ at mental health locally and around the globe

Clockwise from top left: Kit Pogliano, Dr. Savita Bhakta, Dr. Kristin Brownell and Bonnie Kaiser
Clockwise from top left: Kit Pogliano, dean of the School of Biological Sciences at UC San Diego, moderates a discussion of mental health among Dr. Savita Bhakta, Dr. Kristin Brownell and Bonnie Kaiser.
(Screenshot by Elisabeth Frausto)

As mental health continues to be an issue on campus and in the larger local community and the world, UC San Diego presented a webinar Nov. 28 featuring a panel of experts discussing problems in mental health and ways to get help.

UCSD campus

In “A Deep Look Into Mental Health: Campus, Community & Around the World,” Dr. Savita Bhakta, interim medical director of the UC San Diego School Of Medicine, said UCSD has seen a 90 percent increase in mental health service requests, reflecting a recent nationwide rise in mental health issues among young people.

There has been a “disproportionate increase in mental health needs on college campuses, [outpacing] the capacity” to address them, Bhakta said.

For the record:

9:44 a.m. Nov. 30, 2022This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Dr. Savita Bhakta’s last name.

At UCSD, she said, the increase can be partly attributed “in a positive way to the early identification and treatment of mental illness in children and adolescents,” which also is helping to reduce the stigma attached to mental problems.

“However, we have seen a rising trend in emergency room visits pre- vs. post-pandemic,” Bhakta said. Data shows that “while suicidal ideation is still the most common reason for ER visits, there has been a significant increase in the rates of psychosis, anxiety and depression, followed by overdose.”

Bhakta said people who seek treatment in a hospital typically have been battling mental health issues for months or years.

“Student mental health is influenced by a wide assortment of factors,” she said, “and all of those students are trying to succeed academically in a highly rigorous, competitive environment while trying to create their own identity.”

UCSD has developed a multi-pronged approach to providing comprehensive mental health care for its students, Bhakta said. It is “one of only a few such comprehensive and coordinated college mental health programs in the nation,” she added.

The approach begins with prevention and well-being services offered for all students by the Health Promotion Services and Counseling and Psychological Services departments.

“Prevention is always better than cure,” Bhakta said.

UCSD students can access yoga, health coaching, peer support and other services on campus.

“Early identification and early intervention, specifically intensive psychiatric treatments, [have] been shown to significantly change the life course and impact of mental illness,” Bhakta said.

UCSD students, faculty and staff also have training available to help them identify others at risk and connect them to a mental health care team.

UC San Diego's comprehensive model of mental health care
(Screenshot by Elisabeth Frausto)

Providing targeted and intensive intervention is part of the comprehensive approach, Bhakta said, with the primary method being “therapy followed by medication management.”

Students who need a higher level of care or continued care are referred to UCSD’s College Mental Health Program, “a multidisciplinary team with psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers … trained to meet the needs of our diverse student body,” Bhakta said.

Specialized therapies are available, such as virtual reality for specific phobias and dialectical behavior therapy for emotion regulation and distress tolerance, along with a hybrid model of in-person and telehealth care.

“We still have a long road to go,” Bhakta said, “but this is a beginning, and our next steps are to leverage the technology such as mobile apps, digital therapy and predictive analytics to reduce crisis.”

San Diego community

Dr. Kristin Brownell, who received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from UCSD, is now a medical practitioner for Family Health Centers of San Diego, which provides low-cost health-care services primarily in San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood but also in surrounding communities.

She said she sees the most critical mental health-related issues among the more vulnerable populations such as homeless people and those living under the poverty level.

Brownell said mental health needs have “skyrocketed” among people who are under immense stress and those who were severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic by being unable to work or being isolated or frequently exposed to the coronavirus.

At her clinic, “we have mental health embedded within the clinic, but the wait times to see folks are high,” she said.

Primary care doctors are trained to spot a mental health crisis, Brownell said, “so we can do a warm handoff to our mental health professionals” when someone is believed to be at risk.

Brownell advised those struggling with psychological problems to engage in community involvement and stay active.

Calling 988 will reach a new national mental health emergency line, and more support is available through your doctor or supportive family members, she said.

“Don’t keep it in,” Brownell said. “It’s not normal to be having thoughts of hurting yourselves. Please reach out if you’re feeling in crisis.”

Global concerns

Mental disorders are a large part of the global burden of disease, according to Bonnie Kaiser, an associate professor in UCSD’s Department of Anthropology.

Kaiser has worked on identifying and addressing disparities in global mental health care, with a focus on “the ways that we can understand how people experience and conceptualize mental health and illness and using that information to better match our treatment to those experiences,” she said.

Governments around the world have started to realize there is an economic cost to mental illness and have started paying more attention to it, Kaiser said.

Addressing mental health looks different in different countries, she said. Terms for mental health diagnoses are often missing in certain languages, or there is a mismatch in how mental illnesses are conceptualized and treated.

Kaiser said there are three fundamental questions facing the global mental health field: “How can we best communicate about mental distress? … How can we best measure it? … How can we fill these gaps in care?”

She gave an example from Nepal, where “the brain-mind [is] … a really stigmatized part of the body.”

When health-care providers shifted to speaking about mental illness as a problem of “the heart-mind, it was much more acceptable,” Kaiser said, facilitating better care.

“We’re really paying attention to how people conceptualize the person and how that relates to experiences of mental distress,” she said.

“We’re making progress on filling the treatment gap in global mental health and really making sure that that huge global burden of disease … is starting to be addressed.” ◆