I don’t think there’s ever been a study on it, or at least I can’t find one, but I have a hypothesis. Let’s start with what we know. We know that, in 2013, a survey showed that 19.1% of college students reported being treated for any mental health condition. We know that 6.2% reported being treated for a combination of two or more mental health conditions besides the most common – depression and anxiety. We know that almost half of all students found their academics to be “traumatic or very difficult to handle” in the year preceding that survey. Those are the results of a general college population, but what about community college, specifically? I predict that our numbers are much higher.
Community college is where people go to get their second chance. In my classes, I have met a young man who experienced homelessness and heroin addiction in his teenage years and is now returning to school full-time in his twenties. I have met an older woman who spent the better part of 20 years in and out of prison due to drug possession and aggressive behavior that she attributes to a traumatic childhood. I have met single mothers who are struggling to care for their four year old while working and attending school full time at the age of 20. I’m a person with four diagnosed mental illnesses who has seen the inside of one too many psychiatric wards. These are not uncommon stories in community college. We are a ragtag team of social underdogs, and, unfortunately, social underdogs have trauma.
We know how common mental health problems are among the general college population, and I can only assume, based on our shared histories, that they are even more common among the community college population. It wouldn’t surprise me if mental health problems are the biggest barriers to completing our educations. What are community colleges doing about that? They place huge emphasis on degree completion and successful transfer as markers of their success as an institution, but there is a huge gaping hole in their grand plans to make this happen. Mental healthcare services do not exist.
I’m just going to take my state as an example. In our public community college system, we have 14 schools. All of them offer free tutoring, writing and math labs, career and transfer services, academic advising, and general disability services. Most offer specialized veteran’s services, support for international students and children of undocumented immigrants, financial advising, and primary health clinics. A grand total of one offers comprehensive on-campus mental health counseling services. Granted, there are four more that offer short-term, referral-based services, but community college students typically cannot afford services that they are referred to and thus are limited to small handful of sessions they are offered each year.
If I have trouble with algebra, goal-setting, taking notes, hearing lectures, collecting GI Bill funding, finding scholarships, budgeting, getting daycare, transportation, or using computers, I know that I can get the support I need at no cost to me. If I am suicidal, depressed, drinking too much, experiencing hallucinations, struggling with OCD, developing bulimia, harming myself, or too anxious to go to class? I might be able to dig through the school website enough to find the number to set an appointment five weeks from now with a brand new social worker who will tell me I’m beyond their scope of practice and give me a list of outside counselors I cannot afford. If I’m really lucky, I might get reported and dragged into the dean’s office for accusatory, humiliating, and possibly traumatizing “behavioral intervention.” If I’m SUPER lucky, they’ll call the cops and slam me in the psych ward for 72-hours with a grand prize of $5,000 in debt at the end.
Community colleges, you need to step up your game. If you have enough funding for $2 million campus revitalization projects on top of your comprehensive academic, career, transfer, financial, and physical health services, you have the money to allocate toward helping your students stay well enough to stay in school.
Many of us have already been thoroughly beaten down by life, and we’re here because we want to change that. We can have all the free tutoring, writing labs, flu shots, academic advising, and career assessments you can give, but those won’t give us the will to fight. When someone doesn’t care if they live or die, they often don’t care if their writing is good or not. When someone is stuck in negative thinking patterns about their childhood abuse, they often find forward-looking career assessments to be terrifying. When someone is too depressed to bathe, they often need more than just math tutoring to pass calculus. You want us to succeed? Help us.