Co-written with Tina Banks Gray and Karen M. Carty
Comparison of Student Mental Health in Community Colleges and Four-Year Institutions
Traditionally, mental health services have not been widely available at community colleges. In a study done by Bundy and Benshoff (2000), none of the seven community colleges that participated had centers that offered their students counseling services. Study participants indicated that they might or would be likely to visit a personal counseling center on campus if one were available, signaling that community college students need counseling services. Four- year institutions usually have counseling centers where their students can receive necessary services. Though some of them may not be adequately staffed or funded, their mere existence gives university students access to mental health support that some community college students do not have.
In Katz and Davison's (2014) comparative analysis study, it was found that there were significant differences in the amount of mental health information community college and university students received from their schools. Students at four-year institutions reported receiving significantly more information on mental health topics and being more interested in receiving the information than community college students. Overall, the study found "a pattern of difference in psychological concerns, available resources, and resource utilization, with community college students having more severe psychological concerns and less institutional mental health resources than university students" (Katz & Davison, 2014).
Increased demand for student mental health has affected both community colleges and four-year institutions. Almost 90 percent of presidents of public four-year institutions reported that student mental health had become more of a priority in the past three years compared to just under 80 percent of presidents of private four-year institutions and public community colleges (Chessman et al., 2019). Community colleges lag behind public and private four-year institutions
in reallocating or identifying additional funding for student mental health. Less than 60 percent of community college presidents reported reallocation or other funding to address student mental health compared to over 80 percent of public and private four-year institutions. Presidents of both community colleges and four-year institutions are hearing about student mental health issues with greater frequency. Almost half of community college presidents hear about these issues a few times a month.
Similarly, 41 percent of public and private four-year institution presidents hear about them in the same frequency. One exception to this similarity occurs in community colleges, and Presidents at community colleges were twice as likely to hear about housing insecurity than presidents of four-year institutions (Chessman et al., 2019).
Leadership Behaviors and Strategies
Effective leadership strategies and behaviors for campus mental health require a thorough understanding of relevant laws, areas of liability, student needs, and institutional capacities; strategic planning and implementation of student-centered processes and policies; and a campus- wide commitment to collaboration and communication. The increase in the number of students seeking support from counseling center services has created long waitlists due to a lack of appropriate funding. Over 50 percent of college counseling center directors at four-year institutions reported that their operating budgets have not increased over the previous year and resources cannot meet the demand for services (Reetz et al., 2015). The increased demand for mental health services on college campuses has caused colleges to rethink how to support mental and emotional wellbeing.
Students require transparent, connected, and flexible systems that meet the full range of mental health needs. To achieve such systems, institutions must have a healthy infrastructure that includes a clearly defined scope of service that best fits the campus context. Investing in student mental health support and services is a consequential investment in student learning, development, and success. As potential or actual recipients of an institution's mental health care, students can offer valuable perspectives to practitioners designing services, programs, and messaging strategies. Some institutions directly involve students in counseling center strategic planning and outreach strategy design (Reetz et al., 2015). Student-led organizations can communicate with other students to better understand and support their needs, share common experiences, and raise awareness about available resources (Gillard, Gibson, Holley, & Lucock, 2015).
Student Services departments traditionally identify college counseling centers as the epicenter of support for student mental health. Research has shown that resident life staff has historically played an important role in addressing students' mental health concerns. Resident directors, resident assistants, and residential learning community advisors identify and address student mental health concerns more frequently because they are in direct contact with students almost daily (Koch et al. 2020). Students may not want the stigma of officially reaching out to the counseling center for psychological services and may reach out to a resident assistant or director with whom they are familiar and already support the student in other ways. Integrating mental health services and residence life through counselor-in-residence initiatives is an innovative way to address and support student mental health (Orchowski et al., 2011).
Research has shown that many students with a mental illness drop out of college because they lack the tools they need to succeed in college (Field, 2021). The Helping Youth on the Path to Employment (HYPE) program was created to teach students with mental illnesses executive functioning skills of time and task management, prioritization, and organization. Students with mental illnesses that affect the frontal lobe can have delays in achieving those skills. The program is being piloted at Binghamton University. Niteo is a similar program based at Boston University that provides students with one-on-one coaching and peer group coaching. The program teaches executive functioning and coping skills to students who left college for mental- health reasons to successfully return to college (Field, 2021).
Four-year institutions cut counseling center positions during the pandemic and are scrambling to provide mental health services to students on campus, off-campus, in-person, remote, or hybrid. Many institutions are turning to digital and telehealth options as cheaper and more effective ways to offer mental health support (Carrasco, 2021).
As a result of the general lack of personal counseling services at the community college level, campus leadership needs to get creative in finding strategies to provide the mental health services their students need. Suppose there are not enough resources to provide personal counseling centers on campus. In that case, campus leadership should consider partnering with counselors and private agencies that operate near campus to provide services to their students. Other strategies include adding personal counseling software to the career counseling and academic advising processes, offering group counseling sessions, and adding personal counseling staff to existing career and academic counseling staff (Bundy & Benshoff, 2000). It is also important to find out exactly what types of services students need by conducting surveys.
Less effective leadership behaviors and strategies include not being fully invested in students' mental health and not taking action to address mental health concerns brought forward by students, faculty, or staff. Two examples of community college leadership implementing strategies to improve student mental health include work being done at Jackson College in Southeast Michigan and Gateway Technical College Wisconsin. At Jackson College, faculty, staff, and students are trained to "proactively identify and address signs of mental distress" in themselves and others (EAB, 2019). The college president and his administrative staff received training on assessing risk, providing resources and information, and recommending professional and self-help to students on campus. Additionally, they created a safe space on campus called the Oasis Center where students and staff could meet with counselors and receive support (EAB, 2019). In the case of Gateway Technical College, student support counselors "work to normalize mental health conversations by teaching classes on professional success, attending student events, and engaging with students in hallways and outside of their offices" (EAB, 2019). As a result, the burden of seeking help for mental health issues is taken off the students because mental health awareness is woven into all aspects of campus life.
Bundy, Atticia & Benshoff, James. (2000). Research: Students' perceptions of need for personal counseling services in community colleges. Journal of College Counseling. 3(10). doi: 1002/j.2161-1882.2000.tb00169.x.
Carrasco, M. (2021, September 20). Colleges seek virtual mental health services. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/09/20/colleges-expand-mental-health- services-students
Chessman, H. & Taylor, M. (2019, August 12). College student mental health and wellbeing: A survey of presidents. https://www.higheredtoday.org/2019/08/12/college-student-mental- health-well-survey-college-presidents
EAB. (2019, August 26). How community colleges can support mental health. https://eab.com/insights/daily-briefing/community-college/how-community-colleges-can- support-mental-health/
Field, K. (2021, October 25). How time-management and other tools can help students with mental illnesses stay enrolled. Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-time-management-and-other-tools-can-help- students-with-mental-illnesses-stay-enrolled
Gillard, S., Gibson, S. L., Holley, J., & Lucock, M. (2015). Developing a change model for peer worker interventions in mental health services: A qualitative research study.
Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, 24(5), 435–445.
Katz, D. S., & Davison, K. (2014). Community college student mental health: A comparative analysis. Community College Review, 42(4), 307–
Koch, J. M., Murrell, L., Knutson, D., & Federici D.J. (2020). Promoting students' strengths to cultivate mental wellbeing: Relationships between college students' character strengths, wellbeing, and social group participation. Journal of College and University Student Housing.47(1), 10-27.
Orchowski, L., Castelino, P., Ng, H., Cosio, D., & Heaton, J. (2011). The design and implementation of a counselor-in-resident program. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 25(3), 241-258.
Reetz, D.R., Bershad, C., LeViness, P., & Whitlock, M. (2015). The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors annual survey. https:///www.auccd.org/assets/documents/auucd%202016%20monograph%20-
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I am a higher education administrator with over 15 years of experience in communications and operations. The views in my blog are my own.