Mental Health a Serious Concern in Community College Students, Says New Report

Posted By Eliana Osborn on March 8, 2016 at 9:16 am
Mental Health a Serious Concern in Community College Students, Says New Report

A recent Wisconsin HOPE Lab report finds that 50 percent of community college students have recently faced a problem relating to their mental health, in a survey of of 4,000. What’s more, less than half of these students are receiving treatment or help for these concerns. Results that emphasize why attention to mental health should be viewed as an important part of school success plans, particularly at the community college level.

The accessible nature of community colleges may be one reason for the high incidence of mental health concerns, according to Too Distressed to Learn, the HOPE Lab report.  Bob Carolla from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) also notes that the age group for traditional college students is where a lot of conditions come to light. “The onset of 50% of chronic cases of mental illness occur by age 14 and 75% by age 24.” The stresses, physically and mentally, of transitioning to adulthood often push people into developing these chronic conditions.

Other reports have indicated increasing anxiety and depression on college campuses, overwhelming counseling centers. These may seem like less crucial concerns than schizophrenia or other chronic mental illnesses, but all of these conditions affect student success on an academic level, as well as quality of life. There are far reaching consequences of untreated mental health, according to Too Distressed to Learn.

“In addition to the direct effect on individual well-being, there are also substantial downstream consequences, including higher utilization of medical care and social services (e.g., criminal justice, unemployment insurance), reduced human capital (e.g., education, job skills, and productivity), unhealthy coping behaviors (e.g., substance use and risky sexual behavior), problems in interpersonal relationships, and increased risk of violence.”

Community college students have less support compared to 4-year schools

The Jed Foundation works with colleges and universities to stem the problem of youth suicide. Medical Director Dr. Victor Schwartz notes the special difficulties faced by community colleges. “As a general rule, community colleges have less support services available to their students than typical 4-year colleges. Some of this is a function of the fact that most community colleges are commuter campuses so students do not expect to receive “human services” at the school. But, that said, there is real value in having some supportive/mental health services available on campus so they can be integrated with academic support and quickly identify students who may be struggling.”

Low-income and minority students may also show signs of mental illness as they try to fit in to a new environment. Micro-aggressions add up says Schwartz. “Community colleges need to make sure that key people on campus (academic advisers for example) are well versed in how mental health and academic performance interact and how to help students access support services. There needs to be a basic yet broad based level of mental health service on campus integrated with local health and mental health services.” Building those relationships takes conscious effort on the part of administration and staff.

Need for ongoing mental health support at community colleges

The HOPE Lab study asked students about “recent symptoms of depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, as well as past-year suicidal ideation and non-suicidal self-injury.” Campus counseling and advisement at community college has traditionally focused on career services, scheduling, and academic issues. Mental health concerns are counseled with on a temporary basis, before referring elsewhere for long term treatment. Anxiety also has been found to have ties to addiction and drug abuse.

Penny Remick, MA, LCPC works in counseling at Southern Maine Community College. From her perspective on the ground, the positive is that we’re talking more openly about mental health problems so students can get help. The downside is that it takes academic failure to make people realize there’s a problem. Students may be away from home for the first time, not taking care of their bodies, and out of the support system they’ve set up for success previously.

“Students who may seek mental health services on campuses often mimic what occurs in community mental health; they don’t commit,” says Remick. “When people need to do the work of mental health therapy, it takes time, commitment, patience, and effort. This seems to be inherent in humans, this willy-nilly approach to health. It takes time to improve health- any type of health- physical, mental, emotional.”

With 10% more mental health incidents being noted for community college students compared to four-year college peers, continuing efforts will be needed to make sure appropriate services are being offered. Remick notes that she and other counselors care—they want to help. They provide help and healing to hundreds of students each year. “I think we most often take greater risks when we are fearless, more hopeful, and have a support system to fall back on.” Some free resources are available at organizations such as Better Help. Working together, we can make sure college is a time of growth for every kind of student.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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