Addressing Community College Mental Health
Community college mental health is a growing issue as colleges are being forced to do more with less. There are 8.7 million students enrolled in community colleges across the country, accounting for roughly 40% of all undergraduate students. This is a large proportion of the college student population, and a testament to how successful, and accessible, community colleges have become.
Community colleges are thriving in many regards. But when it comes to community college mental health, they are facing great challenges. Half of all community college students are experiencing a current or recent mental health condition. And less than half are receiving any kind of treatment.
Four-year institutions are also experiencing a mental health crisis, but there are some distinct differences in both the student population and resources available.
A vast majority of community colleges do not have a psychiatrist available to students, and over half don’t offer suicide prevention resources. When student mental health is prioritized, it can help support positive outcomes such as improved academic performance and student retention. This is especially important when only 20% of community college students complete their degree program, compared to 60% of four-year college students. Strategies that improve community college mental health may help address some of the issues that lead to unenrollment.
|Community College||Four-Year College|
|Students experiencing mental health conditions||1 in 2||1 in 3|
|Has psychiatric services for students||8%||58%|
|Students who complete their degree program||20%||60%|
|Students who report having support from a friend/roommate||29.1%||53.4%|
Why Community College Mental Health is Suffering
When considering community college mental health, it’s important to note the distinct characteristics of this student population. According to the American Association of Community Colleges:
- First generation to attend college: 36%
- Single parents: 17%
- Students with disabilities: 12%
- Non-U.S. citizens: 7%
- Veterans: 4%
Students may enroll in community college for a number of reasons. They may feel unprepared for a four-year college. Finances and accessibility could play a factor. Many parents and older learners choose the flexibility of community college, and often face the stress of working/supporting children while furthering their education. Mental health could very well influence their educational decisions and performance, though this is a topic that is under-researched.
We do know that risk factors associated with mental health concerns, such as food and housing insecurity, are more commonly experienced by community college students than students in four-year colleges. For students of color, who constitute nearly 50% of community college attendees, additional challenges include racial discrimination, xenophobia, and hate crimes.
Mental Health Crisis at Community Colleges
It’s clear that community college mental health is a concern that needs attention. Unfortunately, there are often fewer options available to community college students when it comes to mental health services.
Only 8% of community colleges offer psychiatric services on campus, compared to 58% of four-year colleges. Some community colleges do provide counseling, but the counselor to student ratios are nearly half that of four-year colleges. This discrepancy means that just 10% or less of community college students use on-campus mental health services, compared to 50% of four-year college students.
A large portion of community college students face mental health challenges, but they often either don’t seek help or help is not available. There is a need for strategies and actions to help support community college mental health so students can succeed in the classroom and beyond.
Addressing Community College Mental Health
How can community colleges work to meet their students’ mental health needs and contribute to their academic success, social wellbeing, and overall health?
An obvious solution might be to invest in counseling centers. But with fewer resources, this is just not an option currently in consideration for many community colleges. In fact, some schools are reducing their counseling services, not expanding.
To provide in-person mental health services, community colleges may have to rely on community partnerships. Connecting students with mental health services they need can go a long way, even if it’s off-campus.
In terms of on-campus initiatives, community colleges can make an impact by focusing efforts on campus climate and prevention. Initiatives should focus on building community and helping students and staff understand how to identify and react to at-risk peers.
How Community Colleges Can Improve Student Mental Health
Perhaps community colleges can’t all create or expand their counseling team. But they can train existing faculty and staff, as well as students, to have the knowledge and skills required to recognize a student in psychological distress and respond appropriately. This can help build a stronger campus culture and a supportive and safe learning environment.
California Community Colleges (CCC)—the largest community college system in the country—did just that. They implemented Kognito’s higher ed role-play simulations, designed to prepare faculty, staff, student leaders, and students to build awareness, knowledge, and skills about mental health and suicide:
- At-Risk for Faculty & Staff
- At-Risk for Students
- Veterans on Campus for Faculty & Staff
- Veterans on Campus: Peer Program
These simulations each took an hour or less and students and staff completed them on their own schedule. By role-playing and having interactive conversations with distressed virtual students, users could prepare to lead real-life conversations to connect them with support.
The trainings were customized to include campus-specific referral information. For community colleges that have off-campus treatment resources that may be less well known, this is a great way to raise awareness.
CCC made huge strides in their community college mental health efforts. Students who completed the simulations reported a 73% increase in the number of peers whom they referred to mental health services.
“We’re increasing awareness and changing the climate in which distressed students are perceived and treated,” said Colleen Ammerman, Program Director for the Foundation for California Community Colleges. “We’re shifting the culture across the CCC system. People are realizing, ‘students success is often derailed by stress, anxiety, and depression and with appropriate support, students can learn how to manage their wellness.’”
With more students attending community college, coming from various backgrounds and experiences, mental health on campus has become a huge concern that deserves attention. Limited resources can be a challenge, but by focusing on cost-efficient strategies centered on prevention and awareness, students can get connected to the help they need to succeed.
Community colleges such as those in California who equip their students and staff with knowledge and skills surrounding mental health are empowering their campus community and leading the way toward a healthier future.
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