Supporting the mental health needs of rural students


According to a report from the Association of Community College Trustees, roughly 3.4 million students currently attend rural community colleges in the United States. Couple that fact with data from 2021 that shows 50% of community college students screening positive for symptoms of a mental health condition, among which less than 30% report receiving treatment of any kind, and we start to get a clearer picture of the challenge facing those working to support the well-being of rural community college students.

It is no secret that college students are experiencing growing mental health needs, and it is equally no secret that community colleges have struggled to keep pace with enrollment and retention efforts in light of the pandemic. While the circumstances might seem difficult at times, these trends for community college populations can provide a unique opportunity to re-examine how we’re supporting students at an institutional level. In my work at Illinois Valley Community College (IVCC), I’ve seen firsthand how providing an expansive range of support options to students goes a long way to helping them thrive during school. Below are three options for community colleges to effectively address mental health on campus, specifically with a lens on supporting students in rural populations.

Provide diverse layers of service

Research shows that 75% of all mental health conditions start between the ages of 18 and 24 years old. Additionally, 57% of campus counseling center directors say that their psychiatric service capacity does not meet student demand. This is particularly challenging for rural community college settings where students often do not have equal opportunity or access to mental health care or support services.

One positive step to alleviate this issue is through providing students with layers of service that meet a wide array of needs. In my work at IVCC, a critical component to driving student success is understanding that mental health does not exist in a vacuum. Oftentimes, factors impacting mental health needs for students can be anything from a diagnosable condition, to worrying about success in school, to financial struggles, to basic needs challenges, to lack of social connection, and much more. At IVCC, not only do we offer traditional counseling services, we also offer support for advising, students who learn differently, student veterans, students who are first generation or who qualify as low income, single parents, adult students, learners who may be pursuing their GED or learning English, as well as a wide range of academic support services.

Additionally, given that there is more support for mental health initiatives than in the recent past, community colleges have a unique opportunity to invest in additional modes of care. In our case, due to the passage of a new law in Illinois, IVCC decided to invest in more virtual and in-person counseling, further diversifying our approach to caring for the mental health of our students and providing some additional support to alleviate strains on our counseling center bandwidth. By providing a layered approach to helping students thrive, institutions can more accurately meet student needs in a timely manner.

Offer confidential tools for 24/7 support

Another barrier of access to adequately supporting students in rural communities is the lingering stigma attached to help-seeking behavior. For context, research from 2021 shows that 48% of rural adults believe that those in their communities attach stigma to mental illness.

To counteract this, it is imperative that community colleges, specifically rural ones, provide confidential and anonymous avenues for students to seek tools and resources to support their mental health and well-being journeys. One avenue in which IVCC has accomplished this is through a multi-year partnership with YOU at College to create the YOU at IVCC platform. This tool provides our students with a confidential access point for personalized, evidence-based mental health and well-being tools, inclusive of IVCC campus resources.

We know this approach is working because we’ve seen more than 2,500 student registrations since we launched and over 3,500 resources viewed. This shows that students will seek help when given an opportunity to access relevant support in a trusted space. Knowing that a variety of factors influence a student’s success during school, as well as their ability to seek support, community colleges must provide students with the opportunities to identify their own priority areas, develop the skills they need for academic and career success, and explore new ways to prioritize their own well-being. Providing access to confidential tools is vital in being able to successfully meet those students who would not have otherwise sought help.

Prioritize student-campus connections

With community colleges experiencing volatile enrollment and retention rates, one of the biggest driving factors in student persistence is building greater bonds to the institution they’re enrolled in. For example, research from 2019 suggests that the more connected students feel to campus events and activities, and the more supported they feel by their institution, the more likely they are to stay enrolled.

Investing in tools to support student mental health and well-being has a tangible impact on both retention numbers and the overall financial stability of an institution. At IVCC, as we have expanded our investment in mental health support, we have equally sought innovative ways to build student connections to campus. One of the ways we’ve done this is through partnering with the Nod app as a way to help students build connections with one another.

Understanding that addressing loneliness has been an uphill challenge for many institutions like IVCC, and that students are still adjusting to a new normal due to the pandemic, the more we can meet our students with tools that help them build relationships, the more cohesive our campus community feels. Social skill-building tools like Nod have helped our students overcome hurdles in connecting with one another in meaningful ways since the early stages of the pandemic, and, in turn, have helped students become better connected with IVCC.

Our focus on everything from on-campus support, to campus wellness events, to open houses, to digital tools, has gone a long way to increasing feelings of belongingness and connectedness in our students, which helps them feel valued by their institution and peers.

As we continue navigating challenges in supporting student needs, mental health and well-being will remain a focal point in driving student success. Increasing enrollment and retention rates, as well as providing greater access to mental health services, remains a top priority for community college leaders. We have been presented with a unique opportunity to expand and evolve our thinking when it comes to providing comprehensive, equitable, and diverse options for supporting our students. Now is the time to reimagine our approach to mental health support and ensure a more sustainable future for addressing the unique challenges facing our students.

About the Author

Tina Hardy
Tina Hardy is the coordinator for the Center for Accessibility and Neurodiversity at Illinois Valley Community College.
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