Community Colleges Need Guidance and Money to Meet Today's Mental Health Challenge


Mar 15, 2024

College students in a hallway, photo by SDI Productions/Getty Images

Photo by SDI Productions/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a troubling rise in unmet mental health needs among college students, and exposed systemic inadequacies in the mental health care systems that serve students. Without adequate supports and resources, students struggling with mental health issues face a number of potentially serious and lasting consequences including stop-out or drop-out, worsening mental health, and economic instability.

Today, thousands of college students report unprecedented levels of psychological distress. The Healthy Minds Study, a nationally representative sample of close to 75,000 college students across the United States, found that during the 2022–23 academic year 41 percent of students reported symptoms of depression, 36 percent anxiety, and 14 percent reported thoughts of suicide. These statistics should deeply trouble decisionmakers. Despite increasing need for mental health supports, many college counseling centers are understaffed and overbooked.

Higher education institutions play a key role in supporting the mental health of college students. Community colleges, which educate more 40 percent of the U.S. college student population, present a tremendous, untapped opportunity for the United States to better address student mental health in our nation and help close long-standing equity gaps in health and achievement. And yet, these institutions face significant resource constraints. With little guidance on how to adapt solutions originally developed for universities with more money and infrastructure, community colleges are struggling to find answers.

Despite increasing need for mental health supports, many college counseling centers are understaffed and overbooked.

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Recent research conducted by RAND and the University of Texas at Dallas, that looked at 18 community colleges across two studies (study 1, study 2) found that student mental health was being supported in a variety of ways including peer-based support groups, mental health task forces, and partnerships with external telehealth services.

How a student feels and behaves depends on many factors, from their history with mental illness to the quality of their personal relationships to the extent to which they feel like they are part of the larger campus community. Generating large-scale, positive changes in student mental health may require higher education leaders and policymakers to move beyond crisis intervention and integrate mental health supports throughout the college experience.

Although these studies focused only on the perspectives of administration, faculty, and staff from a relatively small number of colleges, results highlighted two key challenges impairing their ability to adequately support student mental health needs. (1) Community colleges lack the money and sufficient number of staff needed to provide mental health supports, and (2) research to guide decisions on how to maximize their efforts and impact on student well-being is limited.

Given post-pandemic enrollment declines and growing financial strain on community colleges, simply reallocating institutional dollars to provide more mental health resources or hire more counselors may prove to be challenging. Nonetheless, establishing consistent, long-term funding sources to support community colleges is necessary to creating sustainable, comprehensive mental health supports for students.

Government agencies and nonprofit organizations should prioritize funding mental health supports and services on community college campuses specifically. This should include funding to expand the evidence-base on community college approaches to student mental health. These kinds of investments could help to ensure the sustainability and scaling of proven mental health efforts.

So, in a time of economic uncertainty and rising mental health needs, what can community colleges do?

Conducting an audit or needs assessment is a worthy first step. Consider not just counseling services and programs, but what the institution is doing to support mental health in the classrooms, how it prepares faculty and staff to support students, policies around leave of absence, and fostering a supportive campus climate around mental health. Doing so can help identify redundancies, improve integration of supports across the college, identify challenges, and elevate efforts that have been successful.

Government agencies and nonprofit organizations should prioritize funding mental health supports and services on community college campuses specifically.

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They also could leverage existing frameworks and toolkits. College leaders should draw guidance from frameworks or toolkits rooted in research and developed by thought leaders in the field. These frameworks often include concrete and actionable recommendations for colleges. Examples include: The Equity in Mental Health Framework from the Jed Foundation and Steve Fund; Mental Health Awareness Month Toolkit from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; and Guiding Frameworks for Postsecondary Mental Health (PDF) from The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University.

Establishing external collaborations to offset capacity constraints could also help. Government officials, funders, and public health organizations should consider providing funding to community colleges to hire experts in the field to provide technical assistance around developing an evidence-based strategic plan for addressing student mental health needs. For instance, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, in partnership with the Jed Foundation, launched a new learning community across five states to help institutes of higher education develop a statewide plan to support student mental health and wellness.

Community colleges are engines of economic and social mobility. Failing to provide them the resources they need to support student mental health jeopardizes their ability to be drivers of change. The time is now for bold investments.

Lisa Sontag-Padilla is a senior behavioral and social scientist at RAND, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution. Holly Kosiewicz is a researcher with the Texas Schools Project at the University of Texas at Dallas.