Uniting Mental Health Services in Community Colleges

Community college students are some of the most diverse individuals in higher education. Recent trends in mental health indicate that there is a growing need for diverse services for nontraditional learners. According to a survey conducted by the American Psychiatric Association in 2021, over 50% of community college students in the United States tested positive for symptoms of a mental health condition, but fewer than one in three received treatment. This is why Columbus State Community College (CSCC) in central Ohio is taking a multi-layered approach to support student mental health by increasing in-person and online delivery to students wherever they are.

CSCC Student Affairs Executive Director, Diana Wisse, explains that “students with good mental health have been shown to perform much better in the classroom and progress to degrees faster.”The need for mental health support resources among students is evident, however, during the pandemic, many students did not use their institution’s counseling center. A Kaplan-sponsored Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse March 2022 Student Voice survey found that only 26% of two-year college students (250 of the 2,002 respondents were two-year students) used counseling provided by the university from March to March 2020-2021. The majority of students who utilized the resource used telemedicine counseling services. Few counseling centers across the country are equipped to handle the increased use of facilities by students and the higher level of care that may be required. Institutions are restructuring operations and patient admissions, and some are supplementing their resources with online counseling providers.

CSCC is one of many community colleges across the country that serves a non-traditional student population, including high school students, caregivers, and retirees. The student body is also racially and ethnically diverse, which influences the type of counseling and care that students seek. Franklin County, Ohio, where CSCC is located, has seven facilities designated with high Mental Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA) scores. The county also has a high HPSA score for low-income individuals, meaning there is a shortage of mental health providers for low-income individuals in the county.

To address this issue, CSCC has established a student welfare department on campus in 2021, which includes offices for counseling services, recreation and wellness, student advocacy, and financial security. The university is also increasing the focus of the campus on mental health services by adding a counseling director. CSCC is also augmenting its local counseling center staff with a pilot program that hires interns from nearby colleges to provide student care. Additionally, faculty are interested in mental health first aid training to improve health across campus.

CSCC is expanding mental health services by providing students with a Student Wellbeing Coach. This “Swell Coaching” addresses student nutrition, personal development, physical activity, time management, and stress management. The university is focusing on the eight dimensions of health, including physical fitness, stress management, housing, and food insecurity. CSCC is providing a variety of online and in-person resources for mental health.

Many of the changes that CSCC has implemented were made within the last two to three years, so the long-term impact on retention and persistence has yet to be demonstrated. However, using data from their online counseling partners, CSCC personnel found that students typically connect to virtual counselors during nights or weekends when onsite services are closed. The university plans to survey learners in upcoming community college student experience surveys to link student success outcomes.

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