California Community Colleges Health & Wellness
Prioritizing the Mental Health of Our Students
Today’s college students are juggling more responsibilities than ever before, including coursework, financial stress, caregiving, or living on their own for the first time – and with these responsibilities often comes high stress or anxiety, among other mental health challenges.
In 2004, the Foundation for California Community Colleges and the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office formalized a commitment to support the mental health and wellness of its students by providing resources and programs that reduce stigma and help them manage these stressors in order to focus on their educational goals.
Students are feeling more overwhelmed than ever. As they transition from high school to college, the workforce, and adulthood, they’re juggling numerous responsibilities: coursework, financial stress, competing deadlines inside and outside of the classroom, and for some, caregiving responsibilities or living on their own for the first time. Adult learners face unique stressors that come with going back to school while balancing work and, for some, raising a family. Often, these factors lead to students experiencing high stress levels, depression, anxiety, and other mental and physical health challenges.
Recent research has confirmed these upticks. In 2016, the National Institute of Mental Health released broad findings showing that 22% of young adults ages 18-25 experienced some form of mental illness regardless of their student status, but only about one-fifth of that group sought treatment. Responses to the Spring 2019 American College Health Association National College Health Assessment were even more telling, revealing that 65% of U.S. college students surveyed reported feeling overwhelming anxiety in the last year, but only 24% were diagnosed or treated by a mental health professional.
Long before these survey results were released, in partnership with the Foundation for California Community Colleges, the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office has been actively working to better support the mental health and wellness of its students so that they can focus on achieving their educational goals.
The mental health of our youth is such an important topic, especially identifying those that are struggling and vulnerable. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood. At Bakersfield College, we recently had some moments of truth, revealing that students weren’t aware of the importance of addressing mental health and the on-campus resources available. We now are working to stress the importance of getting help.
Mataalofa Hubbard and Annette Brasher, Student Wellness Ambassadors, and Raymond Purcell, Advisor, at Bakersfield College
Statewide Support for Mental Health
In 2004, more than two million Californians were suffering from mental illness every year, yet mental health services remained underfunded and inaccessible, especially to the uninsured. Then-Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg - who later became a State Senator and the Mayor of Sacramento - took the issue head-on.
Steinberg introduced Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA), a ballot measure that would result in increased funding through tax revenue to build a better mental health system. Through annual funding provided to counties, MHSA provides policy and programmatic support for children, youth, adults, and older adults with serious emotional disturbances and/or severe mental illnesses. The goal of MHSA was, first and foremost, to define mental illness as a condition deserving of priority attention, and it aimed to reduce the long-term adverse impact on individuals, families, and State resulting from untreated serious mental illness by creating and expanding existing programs throughout California.
In 2004, voters passed Proposition 63, establishing a framework that would transform the state’s mental health system from reactionary and crisis-driven to one proactively focused on prevention and wellness. A key mandate attached to these dollars was the establishment of infrastructure and stronger relationships across the state to reach previously underserved populations and all of California’s diverse communities. The California Mental Health Services Authority (CalMHSA) was formed to prioritize and lead funding distribution efforts, and more than $140 million in funding was appropriated to entities with statewide reach or early intervention and prevention expertise.
One of the driving forces connecting public colleges to the mental health movement was Victor Ojakaian (now Co-President of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Santa Clara County Board), who became a mental health advocate after the issue touched his own life. His son took his own life in college in 2004, and Ojakaian became dedicated to recognizing students’ vulnerability and need for mental health support. He lobbied for the California Community College, California State University, and the University of California systems to get involved. The three systems were selected to receive funding through a competitive proposal process among 25 total recipients.
The California Community Colleges specifically focused its efforts on forging connections between campuses and their respective counties, building infrastructure and establishing more long-term referral networks, and creating an advisory committee to oversee the important work. The Chancellor’s Office Advisory Group for Student Mental Health was established in 2010, incorporating partners from Veterans Services, K-12 schools, county behavioral health departments, and more.
California Community Colleges Prioritize Mental Health
In partnership with CalMHSA, the California Community Colleges promoted mental health prevention and early intervention efforts. The Chancellor’s Office partnered with the Foundation for California Community Colleges (Foundation), which distributed $10.9 million in funding awarded to 26 community colleges. This funding was designated for technical assistance, execution of CCC Health & Wellness early intervention and prevention programs, and startup of the Kognito partnership, which provides a suite of online trainings designed to educate faculty, staff, and students on how to best support any student struggling with depression and/or suicidal ideation, LGBTQ students struggling with harassment or exclusion, and veterans facing challenges adjusting to college life.
Among all of these efforts, the most significant work entailed conducting outreach and helping others recognize the early signs of mental illness, and in reducing the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental health challenges — elements of today’s program that still ring true.
Says Colleen Ganley, a mental health specialist at the Chancellor’s Office: “One of our main goals is to let students know that they don’t have to suffer silently, and that there are resources to help. We want to reduce the stigma around mental health and encourage a culture of help-seeking across the California Community Colleges so that students feel comfortable asking for support no matter where they are in their journey with mental health. And when we reach these students, we also create a bit of a rippling effect — as students get more comfortable speaking about their experience, they are also shifting mindsets around mental health with their families, friends, and so on.”
Making Access to Mental Health Support Equitable
Even with recent progress, there is still much to be done. Addressing students’ high levels of stress, depression, and anxiety is crucial to their educational success. Community colleges serve large populations of students who are low-income and often experience food and housing insecurity and many other barriers to their success.
If a student is not well—physically or mentally—their likelihood of graduating and staying the course and doing that in as timely a manner as possible is reduced.
Colleen Ganley, Mental Health Specialist, California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office
Student Wellness Ambassadors creating support ribbons
Working hand-in-hand, the California Community Colleges and the Foundation are committed to not only supporting students’ basic needs, but providing more equitable access to mental health resources and services that help students develop the skills needed to cope with the stressors of college and beyond. This partnership has expanded into the CCC Health & Wellness program, extending well beyond its initial offerings of supplying campuses with mental health resources and additional supports.
A key example of this extension is the system’s Kognito implementation. Introduced in 2012, Kognito guides faculty, staff, and students through training and best practices for supporting others dealing with depression or suicidal ideation, LGBTQ-related harassment or exclusion, and veteran-specific challenges. In 2018-2019 alone, more than 15,000 faculty, staff, and students participated in these trainings.
Crisis Text Line, a free, 24/7 confidential assistance line is another tool that the system has recently released. By texting “COURAGE” to 741741, students experiencing a mental health challenge are provided with real-time support from more than 3,000 trained Crisis Counselors. Between April 2017 and May 2019, more than 4,800 unique users texted the service, resulting in 8,523 conversations and 14 separate instances where active rescues were conducted.
2019 Student Wellness Ambassadors during their visit to the Foundation
The system’s latest mental health initiative, the California Community Colleges Student Wellness Ambassadors Program, trains students to serve as advocates for their peers’ mental health and wellness. Funded by CalMHSA, the 2017-2018 ambassador cohort of 17 students hosted events, tabled, and conducted outreach to more than 20,000 students across the system. This year, 20 new ambassadors were selected from over 200 applicants to continue the work.
As the California Community Colleges continue to focus on student-centered reform efforts to make education more affordable, accessible, and equitable for all, mental health support remains a system priority. The Chancellor’s Office and the Foundation remain committed to finding innovative solutions to all barriers to student success. Visit the new California Community Colleges Health & Wellness page to learn more about current efforts.