May is National Mental Health Month, a time not only to reflect on the importance of seeking help, but also to remind ourselves that mental health is a critical part of overall health. For college students who struggle with mental health issues – whether occasionally or chronically – academic pressure can be debilitating. Add the anxiety and stress brought on by the pandemic, and mental health challenges in the collegiate world increase significantly.
Colleges and universities across the nation, many of which have reported significant increases in both the frequency and severity of students' mental health needs during the pandemic, have scrambled to make mental health services available by phone and video conferencing when social distancing makes in-person visits impossible. But with this challenge comes a silver lining: a renewed emphasis on mental well-being as a top priority for students as they navigate their academic pursuits and, ultimately, their career choices.
And it isn't just the pandemic that has brought more attention to the topic of students and mental health. In a pre-pandemic 2019 survey of college presidents conducted by the American Council on Education, 80 percent indicated that student mental health had become more of a priority than it was three years prior. Seventy-two percent reported they had reallocated or identified additional funding to address the issue. While anxiety and depression topped the list of mental health concerns, presidents at public two- and four-year institutions were more likely to hear about students facing addiction and food insecurity than presidents at private nonprofit four-year institutions. Notably, presidents at public two- year colleges were twice as likely to hear about housing insecurity than presidents at other types of institutions.
The challenges of a rural campus with a diverse student body
At Berkshire Community College (BCC), like many community colleges, a significant portion of the student population represents historically marginalized communities. That, when combined with the rural setting of the BCC campus, presents a unique set of needs.
"Those in rural areas with mental health needs are indeed an underserved group, and an underexposed source of training for professionals of all kinds," said Emily Fulop, a personal counselor at BCC. "While both urban and rural worlds face significant struggles, rural populations have to grapple with so many different challenges than urban folks. In my observation, resources are more focused on the urban level than the rural one."
Fulop said increasing partnerships is key to creating more rural-based experiential training programs. For example, BCC's personal counselors help connect students to healthcare providers who can support them, as well as agencies such as transhealth and Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition, which promotes the well-being of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people – historically marginalized groups who suffer disproportionately from mental health issues.
Fellow personal counselor Lisa Mattila echoes the importance of partnerships, noting that BCC is currently developing a partnership with Christie Campus Health, a college telecounseling platform based in Boston. Christie Campus's diverse group of providers will offer BCC students 24/7 support and access. BCC also collaborates on healthy relationship issues with the Elizabeth Freeman Center; on suicide prevention with the Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention; and on decreasing the stigma of mental health issues with Minding Your Mind, a national organization that shares the stories of young adults in mental health recovery.
"It is our goal to continue to explore alternative ways of reaching our students, especially students who may not access services in a traditional way on college campuses. We continue to evaluate ways to provide a supportive and inclusive environment for all students," Mattila said, noting that students of color represented 21 percent of students seeking mental health counseling. That statistic approaches the 28 percent of total enrollment students of color represented at BCC, a number that has seen dramatic growth in the past 25 years. In 1995, just 4.3 percent of students enrolled at BCC were students of color.
Pam Coley McCann, Associate Professor, Human Services, said partnerships within the college community itself are also critical. The CARE (Care, Assessment, Response, Education) Team, for example, provides a confidential way for students, faculty and staff to share concerns about a student. And, in conjunction with the BCC Center for Teaching and Learning Innovation, BCC is working to expand the understanding of trauma and mental illness as it relates to learning and academic success.
"By building awareness, challenging stigma and creating opportunities for student empowerment, we are taking a multi-prong approach," McCann said.
Efforts to empower students include creating workshops and providing resources on how trauma and mental illness can impact social engagement and the learning process, McCann noted, adding that BCC staff and faculty have been invited to engage in professional development focused on recognizing the symptoms of mental illness and how to support the individual's recovery process.
"Moving forward, we plan to create a toolkit for all members of the BCC community that would provide resources on how to be trauma-informed and how to integrate social and emotional skill development in the learning environment," McCann said.
Recognizing the growing need for mental health resources for college students, BCC hosted "Mental Health: Hope and Resilience in the Berkshires," a two-day virtual conference held during the height of the pandemic in late 2020. The conference, designed for social workers and other human service and health care professionals, provided valuable information about how mental health stressors affect different population groups, as well as local resources and tools to help support individuals and families during this challenging time.
As a result of the conference, a Mental Health Resilience and Resource Guide was adapted for the BCC website. Here, students, faculty, staff, health care professionals and the general public can access myriad resources on topics such as self-care, mindfulness, addiction, domestic violence, homelessness, immigration, veteran services and more.
The many roles of personal counseling at BCC
The Personal Counseling department at BCC focuses on developing mindful awareness and strategies to meet life's challenges, helping students clarify and pursue their personal and academic goals – all in a safe, inclusive and non-judgmental space.
Some of the many reasons students seek counseling are:
Adjustment to college
Anxiety, test anxiety or panic
Depression or suicidal thoughts
Struggles with self-esteem
Stress related to the pandemic
Stress related to political issues
Eating or body image concerns
Concerns related to identity (race, gender, sexuality, class, disability)
Abuse (emotional, physical, sexual)
Navigating family and cultural expectations
Concerns about substance use
"Our data reveals that the issues students struggle with most are depression, anxiety and relationship concerns, which have all been exacerbated by the isolation and stress of the ongoing pandemic," Mattila said, noting that BCC counselors interface with more than 300 students per semester through individual counseling, groups, workshops and forums.
During the pandemic, Mattila said, BCC counselors pivoted quickly to provide services in new ways, including a virtual "In this Together" support group and virtual "Drop-in Talk-in" hours. These formats provided students with opportunities to meet in a more accessible, less formal setting. About 60 percent of students in counseling continue to choose this method.
While BCC personal counselors provide many levels of assistance, sometimes students need additional medical support or treatment, such as those struggling with significant suicidal ideation or substance use. In cases like these, students are referred to community healthcare providers, with special attention paid to creating a good match between the provider and the individual.
Students for Recovery, led by BCC Education and Recovery Consultant Maureen Babineau, provides one- on-one support and connections to campus and community resources. An informal group offering virtual and in-person meetings, Students for Recovery is designed to provide supportive, safe spaces for students in any stage of recovery and their allies. An institutional member of the Association of Recovery in Higher Education, Students for Recovery recently hosted the virtual forum "BCC Student Voices of Recovery," featuring the personal narratives of students' recovery journeys and their experiences at BCC.
"Because college campuses are often the first foray into seeking mental health counseling, we are exploring how to deepen conversations about inclusion and access for students living with mental illness," McCann said. "Our ultimate goal is to help faculty and staff better understand the role of mental health in learning and student success."
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