As students return to campus, community colleges are finding new ways to address mental health issues and broadening access to mental health support.
Students at Holyoke Community College will have access to counselors both in-person and through telehealth. HCC has partnered with the Center for Human Development (CHD), a Massachusetts non-profit, to provide mental health services.
“HCC is known for its strong network of support services for students. This is one more way that we have dedicated ourselves to providing the support necessary to help students overcome barriers to success,” said Renee Tastad, assistant vice president of student affairs and dean of enrollment management.
Partnering to broaden access
In October 2020, HCC launched an initiative with JED Campus, a program from the Jed Foundation, to evaluate and strengthen its mental health, substance misuse and suicide prevention programs.
A Healthy Minds Study conducted in November 2020 by the University of Michigan for the JED Foundation found that 86% of the 611 HCC students who responded said emotional or mental difficulties had negatively affected their academic performance.
The pandemic has disproportionately affected low-income and minoritized students, Tastad said.
“We need to be prepared to help students in all the ways that they need support,” she said, likening it to the other student supports HCC offers to help students succeed, such as tutoring.
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The partnership with CHD is supporting the placement of two full-time, licensed counselor positions. A clinician will work one-on-one with students. A coordinator will triage students in crisis. In addition to counseling, the partnership also will connect students with resources for other needs, such as addiction recovery, housing and hunger. CHD also has a crisis line students can access when they’re not on campus.
As part of the partnership, HCC faculty and staff will receive training around recognizing students who may be in distress.
“That educational component is something we haven’t had before,” Tastad said. “This training will serve more students on a broader scale.”
Tastad hopes the partnership – and everything that comes with it – will help to remove the stigma often associated with mental illness.
Mental health investments in West Virginia
In West Virginia, 12 colleges and universities are getting grants for mental health programs. West Virginia’s Higher Education Policy Commission and Community and Technical College System are awarding nearly $60,000 in grants to improve student mental health at colleges and universities.
Among the grantees is West Virginia Northern Community College (WVNCC). The college will use the funds for stress and mental health awareness via its partnership with WellConnect, through which students can receive free, online therapy and resource referrals. WVNCC launched its partnership with WellConnect in October 2020.
“WVNCC faculty and staff had become increasingly aware of students’ mental health needs, based on daily interactions and conversations,” said Kristi Aulick, an academic advisor. “Our experience is consistent with nationwide trends but unlike some larger schools, we do not have a counseling center on campus.”
The college formed a task force to begin looking at options to meet students’ needs. That work started pre-Covid. Once the pandemic hit, telehealth options “really became a focus as a viable option during the pandemic, but also as a valuable resource going forward,” Aulick said.
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Using telehealth services means there’s equal access to students on all three of WVNCC’s campuses, and it was especially accessible while the college was operating remotely.
“Even if we were able to hire a licensed counselor for in-person sessions, that person would not be as available as the telehealth resources,” Aulick said.
And, she added, “the fact that the counseling services are free to the student is exceptionally important.”
This new mental health grant will allow WVNCC to continue to offer educational and preventative programming, such as workshops and webinars, with presenters from Well Connect, and work to destigmatize mental health concerns.
In addition to the telehealth services, WVNCC established a mental health committee, which Aulick co-chairs. The committee developed from a recommendation of the initial task force.
“The initial goal was to find immediate ways to offer counseling services to students,” Aulick said. “As we’ve made progress with that initiative, and as we embark on a new year, the committee will be looking to build the awareness and utilization of services while looking ahead toward new goals.”
Those goals include integrating mental health/wellness practices as part of the campus culture and promoting prevention and wellness as much as intervention.
A statewide resource
Connecticut’s community college students also will have more support. Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) is partnering with telehealth company TimelyMD to provide 24-hour help.
“By utilizing telehealth technology, students will now have the opportunity to easily and safely get the care they need from practitioners with specific expertise on meeting the unique needs of college students,” said CSCU President Terrence Cheng.
Through the agreement, every Connecticut community college student will gain unlimited access to TalkNow, an on-demand mental health support system, unlimited health consultations, and up to 12 scheduled individual counseling sessions per year.
“In recent years, the demand for student mental health supports has increased dramatically,” Connecticut State Community College Interim President David Levinson said in a release. “We have taken some very important steps, including partnerships with local providers. However, this is the largest systemic investment to date and will provide much-needed access to critical health care services to all our students.”
The two-year annual contract costs $659,223 and is funded with federal Covid relief money.