How Can We Support the Mental Health of Community College Students?

by Amanda O. Latz / Jan 20, 2021

Very shortly after the presidential inauguration of Donald J. Trump, in January of 2017, I stepped onto one of the five physical campuses of the research site of my sabbatical study. The study was focused on understanding how community college faculty experience and perceive their students’ mental health. While the study was not an ethnography, it felt that way. I spent a lot of time on these campuses—in libraries typing reflective memos, in hallways downloading audio files, sitting in lobbies waiting on participants, eating in food courts, browsing and shopping in book stores, and conducting interviews in faculty offices, meeting rooms, and classrooms.

A lot of data were collected. Twenty-one interviews were conducted, and the conversations were intimate, raw, and informative. My background as an adjunct community college instructor was useful in scaffolding the mutual trust built during these exchanges. I understood their experiences and perceptions because I had similar ones.

The study felt so large and dense that I did not want to divide it into several journal articles; instead, I am writing a book, which is under contract and will likely arrive in print in a year or two. My hope for the book is to help community college leaders support their students, particularly as it relates to mental health. Writing such a book means weaving together data, literature, and experience into something useful and practical. This equates to implications for practice, which are, arguably, the point of conducting the study.

Here, I lay out some of the study’s practical implications, suggestions for practice that might help community college leaders build more and better support for their students. But first, a caveat. When I gathered these data, the political landscape within the United States was fraught: The Black Lives Matter movement was well underway, and discerning facts from fictions was a daily endeavor. At the time, the Hope Lab had reported that approximately 50% of community college students were managing some form of mental health issue or concern, with less than half of them receiving any kind of mental health services. It is now 2021. Needless to say, external stressors have amplified since 2017. Supporting community college students’ mental health is more important than it has ever been.

As I related in the preamble to my spring syllabi:

It is a profoundly uncertain time. We, as a nation, recently experienced an attempted insurrection at the United States Capitol Building, prompted by seditious actors. We are also still living in a global pandemic, and systemic racism, especially anti-Black racism, economic precarity, and a fraught and fractured political landscape have compounding effects on the present moment. It is an extraordinarily stressful time, especially for persons with marginalized and minoritized identities. Let us acknowledge this. We are all likely experiencing some level of grief, loss, stress, worry, and anxiety, and those feelings show up among and within us at different times and in different ways. That is to be expected.

What can be done? In what follows, I offer a set of suggestions meant to prompt thinking and action among community college leaders that may result in increased and/or better support specifically for students with mental health concerns. Yet these suggestions will likely be beneficial for all students. Within my forthcoming book, I provide more depth and detail for each suggestion.

  • Know that student mental health is complex, not monolithic. Not all mental health issues are the same, and students may be impacted by external stressors differently. For example, persons who do not benefit from white immunity (see Nolan Cabrera’s book White Guys on Campus) may be more distressed about the recent violence at the United States Capitol Building and current hypervisibility and open presence of white supremacist groups than persons who do benefit from white immunity. In addition, some persons of color may be experiencing “weathering,” a term referring to when ubiquitous stressors gradually negatively impact physical health.
  • Collect and use data. Each institution is different and there is no panacea for this issue. Knowledge is power. Know your students in order to support them best. What do you know about your student body? If you do not have the data you need, can you leverage internal resources to collect it? If not, can you leverage external partners to collect it? Collecting data is one thing; using it is quite another. It must be used. Also, disaggregate your data. Certain student subpopulations may need more support than others. At the same time, viewing the data—and by extension your students—through an asset-lens paramount.
  • Invest in mental health counselors. On-campus and/or virtual mental health counselors are vital. How can funds be generated or freed up to make this investment? Interrogate the budget. Appeal to your board. Canvas grant opportunities. Consider a fundraising project. Research crowdfunding efforts within higher education institutions. Find a way; make a way.
  • Rethink your behavioral intervention team (BIT) policies and procedures. How do faculty and staff view the BIT and related processes? Is the process developmental and supportive, or is it punitive and harmful? Furthermore, what do feedback loops look like within the process? If a campus agent makes a report, is there ever any follow-up with that individual? Why or why not?
  • Train, value, and compensate faculty. Do your faculty know what to do if a student is actively in crisis? Does faculty know what resources are available to students? Is the labor that faculty provide when listening to students helping them address and solve non-academic problems, and relating to them as human beings who are visible, compensated, valued, and rewarded? Why or why not?
  • Implement trauma-informed approaches. Do faculty and staff on your campus lead with trust or suspicion when interacting with students? Do faculty lead with compassion or irritation when engaging with students? Assuming and understanding trauma is an important starting point in order to build trust between institutional agents and students.
  • Invest in social workers. We ought not view student mental health in isolation. Stressors such as living in poverty, battling addiction, insecure housing, lack of transportation, elder care responsibilities, and domestic abuse all have the potential to contribute to poor mental health. Social workers can, potentially, help students ameliorate some of these external stressors, which may help students resolve some mental health issues or engage in more healthy coping strategies. What would it take to bring a social worker or a social work team onto your campus as a full-time employee or funded unit?
  • Build scaffolding for mutual-aid networks. Mutual aid is built on notions of solidarity. Community colleges are not likely to provide students with every academic and non-academic resource they need to persist and achieve their educational goals. Yet faculty and staff could build scaffolding for student mutual-aid networks—within classes, learning communities, student organizations, and so on. Perhaps mutual-aid networks could provide at least some of those necessary resources, such as transportation, child care, meals, and access to technology and reliable internet connectivity.

I hope this post might be a spark, a catalyst for action. Your students deserve it."

Community college faculty know community college students best. I (re)learned this during the course of this study. Faculty recalled students from years ago, provided robust and detailed accounts of working with particular students, and often did so with strong emotion. These faculty were students of their students, and they cared deeply about them and were committed to their success—as both students and people. This issue deserves serious attention, and I hope this post might be a spark, a catalyst for action. Your students deserve it.

 

Dr. Latz is an associate professor of higher education and community college leadership at Ball State University. She also serves as the director of the Graduate Certificate in Community College Leadership at the institution.