May 3, 2022
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, college students had significant, unmet mental health needs. In 2019, 87 percent of college students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do, 85 percent felt mentally exhausted, 66 percent felt overwhelming anxiety, and 56 percent felt things were hopeless. Since the onset of COVID-19, things have gotten even worse: college students have experienced unprecedented levels of isolation, anxiety, and stress, all while facing the same academic pressure that existed before the pandemic. This combination of increased isolation and anxiety with constant high academic expectations has clearly taken its toll. Survey results from March 2022 indicate that the mental health crisis for college students continues to spiral: while 56 percent of survey respondents said their mental health was fair or poor, only 13 percent have used on-campus counseling since the onset of the pandemic. Even more concerning, 57 percent of survey respondents felt their college did not provide enough support to connect them to off-campus therapists [see Figure 1].
All colleges require additional resources to better address students’ mental health needs. But community colleges have particularly significant gaps in their ability to provide students with mental health resources. Research suggests that community college students may have even larger mental health needs than four-year university students, yet community colleges have far fewer resources to address those needs. Because community colleges serve a significant number of first generation college students and single parents – groups of students with particularly high levels of unmet mental health needs – community colleges play a vital role in interacting with students that most need mental health supports. However, even before community colleges saw significant enrollment declines due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they struggled to afford the costs of providing necessary mental health services. Now, COVID-19 has both exacerbated community college students’ mental health needs and has left community colleges with even fewer resources to address those needs. This gap requires immediate action.
Community Colleges Need Funding to Provide On-Campus Counseling Services
Community colleges need significantly more resources to help address their students’ mental health and wellbeing. Given the connection between mental health and academic success in college, improving students’ mental health will likely improve their academic, and future economic, outcomes. Colleges and policymakers alike must therefore center students’ mental health needs in all efforts to improve student wellbeing and outcomes.
To address students’ mental health needs, community colleges need the resources to ensure that all students have access to on-campus mental health counseling and services regardless of health insurance status. By doing this, community colleges can help students who would otherwise face insurance-related barriers to receiving necessary counseling. Given that the cost of mental health services can be a significant barrier for people to receive counseling - even for people with health insurance - community colleges need enough funding so they can provide counseling that is free of charge to their students.
Beyond providing on-campus counseling, whenever possible, community colleges need to strengthen their partnerships with community-based mental health providers that they can refer their students to. While community colleges have an important role in expanding the presence and availability of their on-campus counseling services, not all students will feel comfortable - or adequately served - by on-campus counseling. Community colleges must ensure they develop such partnerships with local mental health providers, and effectively communicate off-campus counseling options to students.
Community Colleges Should Invest in Preventative Services
While community colleges need to ensure they can offer on-campus counseling to any students struggling with their mental health, they should also expand prevention efforts to help their entire community manage their mental health before a crisis develops. To do this effectively, community colleges should offer mental-health and wellbeing trainings to all faculty, staff, and students. Much like colleges offer academic orientations, community colleges should offer mental-health orientations so that students can learn to prioritize their wellbeing, faculty and staff can understand student mental health needs and spot the signs of mental health issues, and the entire campus can elevate mental health as a central, important pillar of the college’s operations. Prevention efforts require additional investment in community college capacity in this area.
Given the connection between student basic needs insecurity and mental health challenges, increasing resources to help students address their basic needs will also strengthen their mental health. Congress should therefore increase its investment in programs that help students afford their basic needs such as housing, food, and transportation. Doing so will help students manage their mental health before crises develop.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to exacerbate student mental health struggles, we need bold investments in community colleges so that they can facilitate student wellbeing. Congress should update the Public Health Service Act and the Higher Education Act to ensure evidence-based practices that support students’ mental health needs can exist in community colleges nationwide. The U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services should also provide community colleges with additional information on mental health prevention and treatment so that these colleges can offer services that best meet their students’ needs. Failure to act will leave vulnerable community college students without the resources that could potentially save their lives.
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