Community college students remain among the most diverse populations in higher education, and recent mental health trends highlight a growing need for diverse services for nontraditional learners.
A 2021 survey from the American Psychiatric Association found more than 50 percent of community college students nationwide screened positive for symptoms of mental health conditions, but fewer than one in three sought treatment.
Columbus State Community College (CSCC) in central Ohio has taken a layered approach to supporting its students’ mental health, increasing in-person and online service offerings to meet students where they are.
“We know that if students’ mental health is good, they will perform so much better in the classroom and progress towards degree faster,” says Diana Wisse, executive director of student affairs at CSCC. “The development of the department of student well-being is a result of our need to focus on this.”
State of play: While there is a demonstrated need among students for mental health support resources, many students did not utilize their institutions’ counseling centers during the pandemic.
A March 2022 Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan found around 26 percent of two-year college students (two-year students made up 250 of the 2,002 respondents) utilized college-offered counseling between March 2020 to March 2021. Of students who used resources, the majority used telehealth counseling services.
Few campus counseling centers, at any type of institution, are equipped to handle increased student usage of their facilities or the higher level of care needed in some cases. While some centers are restructuring operations and how they onboard patients, others are supplementing resources with an online counseling provider.
When asked what their institution should prioritize if there was more funding for mental health services, around 27 percent of Student Voice respondents from two-year institutions indicated they’d want an expansion of on-campus counseling staff, and 21 percent wanted new or expanded telehealth services.
CSCC’s student population, like those at many other community colleges in the nation, includes many nontraditional learners from across the region, ranging from high school students to caregivers and retired folks coming back to college.
CSCC learners are also racially and ethnically diverse, something that impacts the kind of counseling care students are looking for, Wisse explains.
Franklin County, Ohio, where CSCC is located, has seven facilities designated with a high mental health professional shortage area (HPSA) score, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration database.
Franklin County also has a high low-income population HPSA score, meaning a shortage of mental health providers for low-income earners in the county.
A virtual reach: During remote instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic, like many institutions, Columbus State Community College leaders looked into online counseling. Now, the college’s partnership with Uwill offers students additional access to mental health resources.
Recently, CSCC added a 24-7 crisis help line to its portfolio as well, making access to resources one step faster for students in crisis and alleviating pressures on its on-site staff.
“We realized that there is a need for on-the-spot counseling,” Wisse explains. “And when our counselors on campus are in session, they need to be able to stay in session with their student.”
Administrators have shown continued interest in virtual counseling because of its flexibility and range of service offerings for students.
Many community colleges only have one on-site counselor, or someone who floats between campuses to support the entire student population, creating a ratio of one to several thousand learners.
CSCC has two full-time counseling staff members and four interns who support students to serve its 40,000 learners, with delays of about one week for intake of on-campus counseling, Wisse says.
Wrapped in wellness: Returning to in-person learning after the COVID-19 pandemic, CSCC expanded the way it delivered mental health services.
Students looking for mental health support on campus can work with a student well-being coach prior to intake with a counselor. This “Swell coaching” addresses students’ nutrition, personal development, physical activity, time management and stress management.
CSCC administrators established a department of student well-being on campus in 2021, housing the counseling services, recreation and wellness, and student advocacy and financial stability offices, with plans to include more resources in the future.
“We are looking at those eight dimensions of wellness,” Wisse explains, whether that’s physical fitness, stress management or housing and food insecurity. “It’s bringing together that hierarchy of needs for students.”
The college will also add a director of counseling to take a campuswide view of mental health services to increase campus focus, Wisse adds. CSCC is growing its on-ground counseling center staff with a pilot program that hires interns from surrounding colleges to provide care for students.
Faculty members, meanwhile, have expressed interest in first aid training in mental health to improve overall campus wellness, Wisse says.
Tracking impact: Many of the changes CSCC has made took place over the past two to three years, meaning their direct impact on retention and persistence have yet to be demonstrated long term, Wisse explains.
Using data from its online counseling partner, CSCC officials found students were typically connecting with virtual counselors at night or over the weekend, times the on-site services would be closed to them.
“Some of our students are working multiple jobs, so they just come to campus for class and get back to whatever they’re doing in life,” Wisse says. “Being able to get home later and access that, or on a Saturday or Sunday, that’s a great resource to students.”
In the meantime, counseling center staff members are collecting usage data both for in-person and online services through Uwill and will survey its learners in the upcoming community college student experience survey to connect to student success outcomes.
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