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Community college students see need for mental health therapy

Students attending a lecture. (Photo: sirtravelalot, via Shutterstock)

Stressed by classes, grades, jobs, personal issues and COVID-19, some California community college students are turning to mental health counseling. But the service is scarce and demand is high.

The problem is significant:  One major study found that community college students reported higher rates of academic impairment due to mental health struggles than students attending the University of California or  California State University. 

This past year, Sacramento City College hired its first full-time licensed clinical social worker to counsel students.

A limited number of therapists can make it difficult to find the right fit.

All four Los Rios community colleges partner with WEAVE (Women Escaping a Violent Environment) and WellSpace Health to provide students with mental health counseling.

WellSpace Health has one licensed clinical social worker who each week works a 10-hour day at each of the four community colleges in the Los Rios district, said WellSpace spokesman Ben Avey. The therapist has about 600 appointments per semester.

“There is a far greater need than what can be met by a single LCSW going to each campus for one day a week,” Avey said. 

A limited number of therapists can make it difficult to find the right fit, although that wasn’t the case for Angel Tapia, a recent graduate of Solano Community College.

Tapia began using the free counseling services at the college during the fall semester of 2018. She had been seeing a psychiatrist for a few years, but had to drive around 30 miles from Fairfield to Walnut Creek for her appointments. 

“I was going through a really hard time in my life at the moment,” Tapia said. “Emotionally, it just took a toll. I thought it would be nice to talk with someone.”

Solano Community College provides wellness counseling in partnership with JFK University. The counselors are recent  or current students in psychology or marriage and family therapy, and they counsel Solano Community College students as part of their training.

Solano Community College students are only allotted up to eight sessions of mental health therapy.

According to the college’s website, JFK faculty supervise these counselors as they “accrue hours towards licensure.”

Tapia took an online questionnaire that matched her with a JFK therapist who fit her needs. They got along well. Tapia credits her therapist with helping her get a bipolar diagnosis from her psychiatrist. 

“She was the best therapist I’ve ever had because I’ve tried multiple therapists but I haven’t been able to really connect with them like that,” Tapia said. “It made me really sad that I wasn’t going to see her again.”

But Solano Community College students are only allotted up to eight sessions of mental health therapy. Tapia’s therapist broke the rules and allowed Tapia to keep coming in for sessions during the Spring 2019 semester.

Flo Balmaceda, the public health nurse at Solano Community College, says students are usually transferred — “resourced out” — to county services after they use up their allotted sessions. 

Balmaceda often resources out students who need additional or different forms of professional help, but she is not allowed to case manage those students. This is because she is contracted by the county to work at the college,  and is not a Solano Community College employee. 

“I can refer them, but I don’t if they actually make contact or continue to use those services, Balmaceda said. 

Mental health experience of CCC students
In 2013, the RAND corporation and the California Mental Health Services Authority (CalMHSA) published a survey of California college students meant to examine mental health on college campuses. The survey found that students attending California community colleges reported higher rates of academic impairment due to mental health struggles than students attending either UC or CSU, but the researchers couldn’t pin down the cause.

Access to mental health services varies from campus to campus. 

Becky Fein, the director of training engagement at Active Minds, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising mental health awareness among college students, speculated that it may be because community colleges have higher levels of non-traditional students. Community college students often juggle multiple jobs while attending school part-time. Some are single parents, others are veterans. 

“We can speculate around [why], but we did see there was a difference in the mental health needs of community college students in California than the UC and CSU,” Fein said.

Fein says that difference makes improving mental health services on CCC campuses important. 

Students throughout the CCC system feel similarly.

According to Amine El Monzine, a DeAnza Community College student and the vice president of Legislative Affairs at the Student Senate for California Community Colleges (SSCCC), students have repeatedly told SSCCC representatives that access to mental health services on their campus remains an issue. 

Mental health service access and quality varies by campus
The California community college system serves about 2 million students. There are 73 community college districts in the CCC system and 115 individual community colleges within those districts. Unsurprisingly, access to mental health services varies from campus to campus.

“In regards to these mental health services, what these colleges are able to provide is quite limited, and usually involves 1-to-3 counseling sessions per semester.” — Christina Jimenez

The 2013 RAND survey found “substantial campus variability in the percentage of CCC students who received services on campus, ranging from 12 percent to 63 percent across CCC campuses.”

According to the CCC chancellor’s office, about 70 community colleges have brick and mortar health services buildings. Around 90 colleges report “having some capacity to do crisis intervention for students experiencing a mental health crisis.” The majority of those 90 colleges “provide limited mental health counseling services to students.”

“In regards to these mental health services, what these colleges are able to provide is quite limited, and usually involves 1-3 counseling sessions per semester,” Christina Jimenez, a spokeswoman for the Chancellor’s Office, wrote in an email. 

Fein and Moznine say community colleges located in well-resourced communities may be better able to provide mental health services to their students. Fein says enrollment might also play a role.

Mental health services are often funded through small student health fees that typically do not exceed $20. Bigger community colleges, therefore, are often funded better than smaller ones.

Fein pointed to Santa Monica College, a community college with around 45,000 students, as an example. Active Minds recently highlighted the college as one of the healthiest college campuses.

The program’s initial funding came from a one-time appropriation of $10 million from the voter-approved Mental Health Services Act.

“You’ve got an example like that, where you know they’re a campus that has great resources and has been able to mobilize around that,” Fein said. “And then we see campuses that just don’t have the resources available and they struggle with providing services.”

System-Wide Mental Health Services Reform
For the past decade, the California community college system has been working to address mental health challenges and improve mental health care at the community colleges.

In October 2011, the CCC chancellor’s office in partnership with the Foundation for California Community College, launched the California Community Colleges Student Mental Health Program. 

The program’s initial funding came from a one-time appropriation of $10 million from the voter-approved Mental Health Services Act, Proposition 63. The state budget has also dedicated funds to the CCC mental health services.

In 2017, the CCC system received $4.5 million in mental health funding from the state, which helped fund 15 community college districts representing 27 individual colleges.

“It seems like a negative thing that the numbers are increasing and in some ways it is, but we also see that as a positive that more students are getting the help that they need.” — Cole Forstedt

In 2018, the state budget allocated $10 million for CCC mental health funding. All CCCs received a portion of that funding. In 2019, the CCC system received $7 million in mental health funding which ultimately funded 16 community college districts representing 27 individual colleges. CalMHSA gives the program about $400,000 in funding each year. 

Cole Forstedt, the program manager at Foundation CCC,  says the student mental health program focuses largely on prevention and early intervention strategies. They use a program called Kognito to train faculty in suicide prevention studies.

Recently, they established a partnership with Crisis Text Line. CCC students can text “COURAGE” to 741741 and receive real-time support from crisis counselors. The specialized code word allows the CCC system to track how many students are using the crisis text line. 

The number of CCC students using the crisis text line has steadily increased over the past few years. Forstedt said that seeing an increase is heartbreaking and alarming. However, he also hopes it means that more students are seeking help. 

“It seems like a negative thing that the numbers are increasing and in some ways it is, but we also see that as a positive that more students are getting the help that they need,” Forstedt said.

One of the program’s goals is to reduce stigma surrounding mental health issues and encourage students to use the resources available to them, but many students remain unaware of the options.

Some 67 percent of those responding to the survey said they were facing “higher levels of anxiety, stress, depression, and/or any other mental distress than usual.”

Tapia says when she told some of her peers that she was using Solano’s counseling services they said they had never heard of the services before. The 2013 RAND report found that no more than 30 percent of CCC students surveyed reported having received information about mental health services. 

The student mental health program awards grants to individual colleges, which help fund mental health awareness campaigns. It has launched a student ambassador program made up of 20 students. The students are trained in mental health awareness initiatives building. Forstedt says that each ambassador reaches about 1,000 students per semester. 

“We know that the need is there,” Forstedt said. “We know that the number of counselors on campus and their availability to students is very limited, and so I think there is a concentrated effort and push for that throughout the system.”

COVID-19 challenges
COVID-19 presents challenges both in continuing to provide mental health services and in continuing to advocate for mental health service reform. 

A recent  survey of over 1,690 community college students in California found that about 67 percent of those responding reported that they were facing “higher levels of anxiety, stress, depression, and/or any other mental distress than usual.”

Students seeking services must now look online. The chancellor’s office says many colleges have transitioned to tele-health services, but others have not. 

But not every student has access to the internet or a computer. Fein says that students who have the adequate technology may still struggle to find a safe space and time to use mental health services.

Looming state budget cuts could also hamper efforts to improve mental health services.

“I think like most of the issues in our system the administrators as much as anybody are just sitting there frustrated that they can’t take more action on this because they’re under-resourced. It’s one of the things where I do not begrudge anybody,” Moznine said. 

Tapia has not seen a therapist since using the wellness counseling services at Solano Community college in the spring of 2019. She still sees her psychiatrist in Walnut Creek, but it is difficult for her to make the drive multiple times a month. 

“There’s nobody around here in Fairfield that is covered by my insurance…” Tapia said. “It’s difficult to find services near where i live for therapy that’s why the free services from Solano were so convenient.”

Tapia graduated from Solano Community College this past week. She’ll be attending Chico State University in the fall. 

 


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