Serving students’ mental health needs

Jackson College President Daniel Phelan and Jacqueline Spiegel (center), a physician assistant and health sciences professor, talk after their session with attendees. (Photos: Matthew Dembicki)

DALLAS — Jacqueline Spiegel hopes that one day having people trained to spot whether a person may have mental health issues will be as common as receiving training in first aid and CPR.

That’s because the number of Americans, including college students, who struggle with mental health issues is staggering. Research shows that:

  • One in five people experience a diagnosable mental health disorder, from eating disorders to anxiety.
  • Among college students, 35 percent meet criteria for at least one mental disorder.
  • Almost 73 percent of students living with a mental health condition report experiencing a mental health crisis on campus.
  • Among ages 15 to 34, suicide is the second leading cause of death.

Speaking at a session at the AACC annual convention, Spiegel — a physician assistant and health sciences professor at Midwestern University — said individuals who receive Mental Health First Aid training can not only notice the signs of mental health issues and guide the individual to seek help, but they can also help educate the community to reduce the stigma associated with such disorders. That includes tackling misconceptions about mental health issues, such as individuals with such disorders are violent. In fact, people with mental health issues are 11 times more likely to be a victim than an assailant, Spiegel said.

Student outreach

A growing number of community colleges are recognizing that many of their students face such disorders, and they have taken on efforts to help them. College leaders note that mental health challenges, along with issues such as hunger and lack of sleep, are often major barriers to students’ success in college. Jackson College in Michigan last September opened its Oasis Center. In partnership with the local organization Family Service and Children’s Aid, the center provides short-term behavioral health help to students and employees, including meeting with a licensed mental health clinician.

The center was in response to an increasing need for mental health assistance on campus, said President Daniel Phelan, who noted that if students struggle with such issues, “they’re not going to walk on the stage” to graduate.

“It’s just as important as having food to eat and a bed to sleep in,” he said.

The center is among the approaches that Jackson College uses to help students. Mental health services are also presented during orientation and housing orientation (the college has about 500 students living on campus). In addition, faculty often take students on the first day of classes to the Oasis Center not only to highlight its services but also to help destigmatize mental health issues, Phelan said.

“That is a very powerful message to students on day one,” he said.

Trained to notice potential problems

Jackson College also has employees — from student success advisors to Phelan himself — who have received training to notice mental health signs. They use the one-day, eight-hour Mental Health First Aid (MFHA) program, run by the National Council for Behavioral Health. The program also teaches participants to listen nonjudgementally, provide reassurance and information, encourage appropriate professional help, and encourage self-help and other support strategies.

Tammi Summers (right), dean of learning success at Gateway Technical College, chats about her college’s mental health services.

In Wisconsin, Gateway Technical College created its CARE Team, which comprises three counselors. It also looks for different ways to spread the word about the program, including classroom presentations and events such as Women’s History Month activities, said Tammi Summers, the college’s dean of learning success. The college also uses MFHA to train its student support counselors to notice signs that students may need assistance. Like Jackson College, Gateway Tech wants to “normalize talking with a counselor,” Summers said.

Gateway Tech also runs a system that allows anyone to report information about a student who may need help. The information is send to counselors, who review it and determine what action is needed, if any, Summers said.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.