Mental Health Care is Absent at Many California Community Colleges

Emma Ventura struggled with her mental health when she first started at Taft College. While she was able to get counseling, she said that she often sees students at her school struggling with issues that affect their mental health because mental health services are not widely available on many community college campuses. Photo Credit: Alyssa Morones

When Emma Ventura first started as a student at Taft College, she found herself overwhelmed by family problems and the financial strain of education. Unsure of where to turn for help, she struggled with her mental health.

Looking for guidance, she spoke to one of her health professors, who listened and talked with her about some of her problems. But it wasn’t a long-term solution, and after a difficult break up, she felt herself struggling again.

“I was lost,” Ventura, now 21, said. “I didn’t feel like I wanted to go to school. It was really hard.”

This time, one of Ventura’s psychology professors told her that there was now a counselor on campus one day a week who she might be able to speak to. It was the first time she’d heard this was an option.

California’s community colleges serve more than 2 million students annually, but mental health services are not widely available on many campuses. Of the 114 community colleges in California, at least 19 appear to have no mental health services on campus, according to experts and a California Health Report survey of available data. Even on campuses that do have mental health care, availability and services can vary widely.

The lack of access is especially concerning because, as a whole, the students who attend community colleges are at higher risk for mental health issues.

“At community colleges, we have a population who has a lot of challenges,” said Susan Quinn, a nurse practitioner who has worked as the director of student health services at Santa Rosa Junior College since 1995 and is a member and former research director of the Health Services Association of California Community Colleges. “There are increased risk factors for vulnerable students, low socio-economic status, more first-generation students, more ethnic diversity.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 22 percent of young adults ages 18-25 experienced some form of mental illness in 2016. Of those, 35 percent sought treatment.

‘The System is Flawed’

When comparing community colleges to UC and CSU campuses, disparities in access to mental health care are apparent. In California, health centers and services at community colleges are funded differently than the same services at four-year universities.

The establishment of health services is optional for community college districts. If a district decides to provide these services, it must charge a separate student health fee, not to exceed $19 per semester, that’s not rolled up with other enrollment fees. The district does not have to charge the full amount and there is an opportunity to provide waivers to particular groups of students, including low-income students.

“So if you take a college that has less than 5,000 students per semester, there is not enough funding to carve out a position for one person,” Quinn said.

A California Health Report analysis of the community colleges’ websites found that at least 19 list no mental health services available on campus. Of the schools that do have mental health services available on campus, the services vary widely in size and scope, ranging from just one office to full health centers, according to Colleen Ganley, student mental health specialist at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

The schools offering services typically have counselors or social workers on campus to meet with students, and students do not need health insurance to receive treatment. However, at smaller schools or those with limited funding, the counselor may only be available one day per week.

In certain regions of the state, the disparities in access are particularly stark. In rural California, for example, Ganley said, there tends to be fewer providers and fewer options for treatment; in large cities, there are usually more providers, but high-density populations can make it difficult to meet demand.

“I really believe that the system is flawed in the respect that we are not providing equitable health services to every student across the state,” Quinn said. “It’s very piecemeal.”

Researchers have highlighted the access problem. According to a paper published by state researchers on Psychiatry Online in 2015, “whether a student was enrolled in the UC or CSU system, each of which has a systemwide network of campus mental health clinics, or the CCC system, which does not, was significantly associated with use of mental health services.”

Some schools that don’t charge a health fee may use general funds to hire a mental health professional. This is the case at Taft College, where Ventura attends. Taft is a small school of about 5,000 students, located in a sparsely populated area of Kern County.

When the school’s vice president of student services, Severo Balason, came to Taft a couple of years ago, after working at schools in Texas and Illinois, he hired a mental health counselor. Balason said he wanted to invest in mental health services after noticing that the college had a police officer patrolling campus for daytime security, placed there after a shooting at the local high school in 2013. Balason’s goal is to also develop an intervention team, and to help students deal with mental health issues in ways that aren’t punitive.

Since January 2017, Isaias Hernandez has been available to counsel students at Taft one day a week. This year the school is increasing the mental health counselor’s availability to two days a week. Though budget and funding currently limits what the school is able to provide, Hernandez is working with the administration, faculty and staff to figure out how to expand and extend support services. He’s leading staff trainings and working with teachers to refer students to counseling. And he’s supervising a student-led support group that Emma Ventura is starting.

Ventura’s outlook changed after she began meeting with Hernandez for once-a-week counseling sessions. The counseling helped her work through her issues and stay on track with her education. She’s seen her grades improve significantly and has found new motivation in developing her peer support group. Now, having seen the need, she wants to pay it forward.

Ventura, who now plans to major in psychology to become a counselor at a college or university, said that she often sees students at her school struggling with issues that affect their mental health. She has friends who have been in similar situations as her, and hears many students having trouble with their families or struggling financially, “but they still show up to school, which is great, but they’re still thinking about that problem, and they’re not able to concentrate in class.”

A Veto, and Trying Again

Taft College, like other state community colleges, works to connect students to outside community resources. However, this can be difficult for schools located in areas where community resources are minimal or overburdened.

The need for more robust funding and services for community college mental health services has not gone unnoticed. In 2016, state assembly member Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), proposed Assembly Bill 2017, which would have significantly expanded mental health services across the California community college system. But Gov. Jerry Brown ended up vetoing the bill because of problems specifying the amount and source of funding.

Other statewide efforts, from the Chancellors Office and partners, are trying to fill the gap. The college system receives some funding through Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act, which state voters passed in 2004 to provide increased funding for mental health resources in the state. The Chancellors Office is developing an online suicide-prevention training tool for students, faculty and staff at all of the state’s community colleges. Students can also use text-based mental health support, which allows students to receive immediate mental health support via text from trained counselors.

But having a health center on campus that provides mental health services is the gold standard, said Alexander Kagan, a marriage and family therapist and licensed professional counselor at Cosumnes River College. Kagan said on-campus mental health services are valuable because clinicians develop the expertise in working with college students and short-notice crisis intervention is readily available.

“Instead of giving someone a list of numbers, we can say that we have a clinician here on campus, and they can see you soon, or offer to make an appointment for them,” he said. “That makes a big difference.”

Integrated health services, both mental and physical, are the most effective way to serve students, said Quinn. For example, on-campus health professions can treat “depression, sleep, homelessness, food insecurity (by) looking at how all of those things play into what a student experiences in college.”

More help is on the horizon. In the upcoming state budget, funding for California community college mental health programs increased from $4.5 million last school year to $10 million for the 2018-19 school year, which will likely be distributed to community college districts through grants, for which the districts can apply, Ganley said.

And this fall, the Chancellor’s Office plans to launch a new online wellness program, developed with the California Community Colleges Health Services Association, that will help students confidentially assess their own wellness and provide information on where current students can access resources, whether at their college campus or nearby in their community. The program will be available on the online platform used by all state community colleges, in an effort to reach more students. It will be up to districts to populate their online platforms with this, but Ganley said she is optimistic that the districts will take advantage of the free service.

Emma Ventura hopes that the peer support group she is working to develop will be a resource for her fellow students by providing people to speak with who have dealt with similar issues or helping to direct them to the resources that can better help them, and by increasing awareness on her school’s campus.

But Ventura does not hesitate to say how helpful an on-campus health center would be.

“If there was a place to go where you could say, ‘I want to seek help’ …that would be really, really helpful,” she said.

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