In California, hope for student mental health care

By: | Issue: February, 2016
January 29, 2016

California’s colleges and universities have made strides in providing mental health care to students—when higher ed as a whole has struggled to keep up with a growing demand for services. Recent studies suggest that up to one-third of college students suffer mental health problems.

California’s Mental Health Act, passed in 2004, assesses a 1 percent tax on residents whose personal income exceeds $1 million a year, providing an annual $8 million toward mental health care and early intervention measures for public colleges and universities.

A Rand Corporation analysis found student use of mental health services increased 13 percent in fiscal year 2013-14, and an additional 329 students graduated as a result of receiving these services. A 2009 University of Michigan student survey linked depression to lower GPAs and a greater risk of dropping out.

In the California State University System, the grant funded extensive mental healthcare training for administrators, faculty and students. Sessions focused on suicide intervention skills, mental health first aid, and the “question, persuade and refer” (QPR) model of communicating with distressed students, says Ray Murillo, the system’s director of student programs.

QPR trains staff to recognize and respond accordingly when a student is demonstrating suicidal behavior.

Those who attended the CSU sessions also became certified to provide ongoing suicide prevention and mental health training on their home campus, he says.

Mental health awareness activities takes many forms, including:

  • Campuswide health and wellness fairs
  • Awareness efforts to eradicate stigma associated with mental health disorders
  • Peer-to-peer programs in which students act as mentors for their classmates
  • Student organizations such as Active Minds, a group working on several California campuses to promote mental wellness events
  • Classroom presentations by counseling and psychological services staff

CSU offers commuter students depression screenings at campus health centers and mental health links in student portals, Murillo says. The university reaches out to commuters via email and social media and sends promotional materials about emergency hotlines and support groups.

CSU also collaborated with the state’s two other higher education systems, holding regular meetings where program managers discuss challenges and share successful tactics, says Ann Collentine, program director of the California Mental Health Services Authority.

As a result, CSU adopted the University of California’s Red Folder, a faculty guide for responding to distressed students. CSU also now uses communication strategies first demonstrated in California’s community college system, she says.

In total, grant money trained 17,238 students, staff, faculty and administrators, and 424 police officers from 72 police agencies. It also allowed campuses to formalize and strengthen existing partnerships with local counties and agencies to expand services, says Murillo.

“These education and training activities lead to increased knowledge and awareness on campuses,” says Murillo. “[This is how we are] lessening the stigma associated with student mental health issues.”