Community colleges strive to boost mental health resources

Community colleges have been developing new mental health programs in an effort to raise awareness and boost student success.
By: | Issue: January/February, 2019
January 23, 2019
mental healthmental health haven—Jackson College’s Oasis Center provides short-term support and resources for students struggling with mental health issues. To encourage use, the center is located adjacent to other campus health facilities.

Mental health care at community colleges has in the past been hampered by a lack of funding and the fact that many older students live off campus.

Recently, community colleges have been developing new mental health programs in an effort to raise awareness and boost overall student success, says Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

“In the past 18 months, we’ve been seeing a trend toward institutions providing training to their employees to recognize, notice and be able to support students with mental health issues.”

Proactive solutions for mental health

Typically, a renewed focus on mental health at a community college involves boosting counseling center offerings and crisis services.

At Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a multidisciplinary group of campus leaders—including three licensed counselors—intervenes when students or staff experience distress, or engage in harmful or disruptive behavior. Students submit online reports identifying situations (or their own issues), which are then reviewed by the CARE Team; members respond as needed. For example, if a student is talking about self-harm, a police officer may be dispatched to check on the student, who may meet with campus counseling staff for follow-up sessions. An employee-related situation is handled by human resources.

Staff train regularly to identify students struggling with mental health issues, and the CARE Team is strongly promoted. Nearly 1,000 reports are filed annually, says Tammi Summers, dean of learning success and head of the CARE Team. “We tell our students, ‘When in doubt, fill it out,’” Summers says.

At Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California, the student health center provides short-term psychological care and crisis counseling, ranging from relationship issues to substance abuse. Marriage and family therapy trainees and associates work under the supervision of licensed counselors to assess students and provide support. Each student can have up to eight sessions with a therapist before they are connected with community resources for more long-term or acute mental health issues.

“Our moral imperative as community colleges is to ensure students are successful academically and able to manage their mental health,” says AACC’s Parham.

A holistic approach

At least one two-year school is breaking new ground with mental health services delivered in a soothing setting. Jackson College, a community college in Michigan, opened its Oasis Center for mental health in summer 2017. Located in a quiet, easy-to-access part of campus and adjacent to Jackson’s medical and dental health facilities, the center features soothing green lights and ambient sound, a calming water feature, inviting furniture and no right angles in any of the rooms.

One of the center’s goals: Remove the stigma often surrounding mental health, says Dan Phelan, Jackson’s president.

“We want students to say, ‘If I break my arm, I go to the medical clinic. If I need my teeth cleaned, I go to the dental clinic. And if I’m having difficulty with mental health issues—I’m struggling with my roommate or I’m thinking about ending my life—I go to the Oasis Center,’ ” says Phelan.

The center’s space was created at a cost of $205,000, and its annual operating budget is around $90,000, including the salaries of two part-time mental health specialists. With five to 20 scheduled student visits per month, the center also handles more than 100 drop-ins and inquiries. If they can, students pay $5 per visit (no one is turned away). The center is also open to campus staff for $10 per visit.

Providing mental health support is part of the institution’s commitment to serving the whole student and fostering success. “Mental health is a growing issue across our country, and our students are no different,” says Phelan. “If you think you’re doing enough by referring people off campus or having therapists in on occasion, you’re not going far enough for your students.”