Rather than being surrounded by students posing for pictures or watching the sunset, the Porter Squiggle stood illuminated last week by dozens of small white bags, each containing two electric candles and a message of hope.
On Oct. 22, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) held UC Santa Cruz’s first annual “Lights in the Darkness” event to raise awareness for suicide prevention and mental health concerns. Students and faculty could place a white bag with an illustration or message they wished to send to those struggling with mental health issues around the Porter Squiggle.
A number of CAPS faculty were available to speak to students, and a table of pamphlets and resources regarding mental health concerns were also featured.
Two hundred and thirty students attended the event, and 200 white bags containing a total of 400 lights were placed around the Squiggle.
This candle lighting event, originating at San Jose State University, took place on the majority of the CSU campuses and UCLA on Oct. 1, while UC Irvine’s Counseling Center plans to hold the event on Nov. 22. CAPS counseling psychologist and one of the organizers of the UCSC event Emilie Cate recognizes the distinct relevance of this event for college students.
“Adjusting to college, dealing with new experiences … sometimes the traditional college age is when we first see mental health issues arise as a result of lots of stress,” Cate said. “We wanted to promote an event like this to raise awareness that people on this campus and in this community have lost loved ones to suicide, and chances are all of us know someone who is affected by mental health issues.”
The event was sponsored by both CAPS and Porter College’s housing office, using grant funds provided by the Mental Health Services Act (Proposition 63). Proposition 63 contributed grant funds to all 10 UC campuses and the 23 CSU campuses in order “to reduce the number of college suicides, raise awareness about mental health issues, promote wellness and positive stress management, and reduce stigma and discrimination for those living with a mental illness,” Cate said via email.
The event was advertised on caps.ucsc.edu as well as on Facebook, but many students stumbled upon the event as they were walking by the frequently traversed Porter landmark. One student in attendance, who heard about the event through a friend, recognized the opportunity to reach out to someone in particular.
“I just wanted to send her some positive vibes,” said UCSC undergraduate Tabitha Branda. “I mean, she’s getting better but I just keep trying to encourage her every day and I guess this is kind of my little way of trying to lift her spirits.”
While Branda’s message was prompted by a specific person, she spoke about the relevance of this event for the entire campus.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize how serious … depression and mental illnesses are,” Branda said. “I think things like this are not only for all of us on a personal level and the people we are honoring, but it’s to raise awareness of how serious … this is.”
Part of the power of this event is the connection it creates between people, said CAPS student advisory board member and first-year Sharon Munoz-Saldana.
“I think it connects with a lot of people,” Munoz-Saldana said. “I think a lot of people can relate to this issue of suicide and mental health problems and I know personally I can relate to it. I just think it’s a good way to reach out to those students and say, ‘We’re here.’”
Not only does this event create a greater consciousness around mental health concerns and suicide prevention, but it also raises awareness of the ongoing support CAPS provides at UCSC.
“I think [CAPS] is so important,” Branda said. “I feel a lot of times people with depression don’t know where to go and they don’t know if they can really talk to anyone or seek help. I think this is a great program for that kind of outreach.”
While the candles represent a sampling of different powerful messages, Cate wanted to make sure one message remains abundantly clear.
“We always want to emphasize that suicide is preventable,” Cate said. “Early treatment helps and is effective.”