A Mental Health Crisis Looms in Rural America – Community Colleges Can Help

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The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates the dangerous conditions present in American society that public health experts warn lead to “deaths of despair”: deaths by suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol abuse. Across the country, “deaths of despair” are projected to increase amidst feelings of helplessness, uncertainty, and fear that surround the pandemic, and the social isolation and economic disaster that has come in its wake. “Deaths of despair” are projected to be especially pronounced in rural America, where residents face additional barriers to access mental health services, such as healthcare and digital infrastructure not experienced by city dwellers. Notably, experts have found that “deaths of despair” are particularly prominent among individuals without a postsecondary education. For the 3.4 million students attending rural community colleges, the stakes of their education have never been higher.

The 2010 Carnegie basic classification defines a small rural community college as a rural institution “with a full-year headcount enrollment below 2,500” (Rural Community College Alliance). The open-access policy of community colleges recognizes that all students should have the opportunity to succeed at obtaining a degree, certificate, or successfully transfer to a college or university. This commitment to open-access education necessitates investment in student success initiatives. Especially during the pandemic, rural community colleges must add mental health services to their student success playbooks.

Community college students increasingly struggle with mental health.

Under pre-pandemic circumstances, many students enrolled in community colleges faced obstacles posed by finances and transportation, food and shelter insecurity. While these basic needs insecurities are generally accepted by practitioners and have funding available for community colleges to help their student populations address these needs, mental health is an area that has been understudied and undervalued – to disastrous effect. Mental health disruptions can undermine a student’s education, putting them at risk of dropping out or discontinuing their studies. The problem is ubiquitous. “One in four [college] students has a diagnosable [mental] illness” and “50% become so anxious that they struggle in school.” Independent research conducted by ACCT in partnership with the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, Healthy Minds Network and Single Stop in 2016 confirmed this rate among community college students, with 56% of students ages 25 and younger reporting a mental health condition. It is a sobering fact that “suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students.” “Untreated mental health disorders can lead to school failure, family conflicts, drug abuse, violence and suicide” (C. J. Kupphan, 2006), which contribute to the rising number of “deaths of despair” across the country.

Addressing students’ mental health needs.

Today, under the added economic, social, mental, and physical health stresses of the pandemic, rural community college student success hinges on the wrap-around services and supports provided by their college. For rural-serving community college students, their college can be at the heart of the response to this mental health epidemic, helping them to cope with the additional stress caused by the pandemic and succeed in their studies, drastically reducing the threat posed by “deaths of despair.”

Unfortunately, not all rural community colleges are able to afford mental health support and services. For resource-strained rural community colleges, wraparound care (as used by social services and mental health agencies), mental health first-aid (as practiced by emergency responders), and tele-mental health may provide affordable solutions in lieu of dedicated and expensive mental health personnel and facilities. In order for such efforts to coordinate community stakeholders and implement a mental health response that is both “culturally competent” and successful, it will need to be designed to reflect the rural community college’s population.

Many college students are now returning to their campuses with significant changes in instruction, restrictions around social interaction, and these may also come with students’ personal anxiety about health and safety. Many more students are continuing their courses of study from home, which also presents many unique challenges and stressors. Our task as community college trustees is to be prepared to encourage and support our presidents to provide students with the services that will enable them to cope with both the long-standing stressors of college expectations in addition to the new stressor of COVID 19.