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In the darkness, unassisted

Students flock to community colleges because they are more affordable than other types of college and because these schools have a proud track record of helping hard workers move up in the world. But something is broken in America’s community college system.  Today, 43 percent of students entering community colleges wind up without a credential of any kind eight years after they begin their studies.

There are many reasons for this, but here is a new one: a high prevalence of mental health problems among students.

{mosads}Consider Sean, a student we met in our research (not his real name). Ten years after starting college, 30-year-old Sean is still working to finish a technical degree.  He knows that without it, he’ll never get a good job, but it’s a struggle to finish the coursework.  He drifts in and out classes, and some days he isn’t sure what he is doing or why.  Some days, putting one foot in front of the other is hard.

“It’s been tough,” he reveals. “I don’t like to tell people this, but stuff has happened to me and I haven’t had anyone to talk to about it.”  Growing up poor and black in segregated Milwaukee, Sean feels fortunate to have finished high school, and never ended up in prison. But in an interview with a member of our research team, he shared that he was molested when just 4 years old.

College, for Sean, is about recovery. He barely has the money to attend. But the darkness drives him, pushing him to finish that degree, and in his words “become whole.”

The number of college students struggling with mental illnesses – students like Sean – is growing. At four-year colleges and universities, about one in three students experience mental health challenges. While a small number of tragic campus shootings by mentally ill students has brought national media attention to this issue, this attention is misleading and stereotypes people with mental illness while ignoring the broader challenges at colleges and universities. And even less is said about the mental health experiences of the nation’s 11 million community college students, who attend institutions where resources tend to be especially scarce.

Last fall, we set out to investigate the mental health conditions of students at America’s community colleges.  We conducted an online survey at ten institutions, and gained participation from more than 4,000 undergraduates.  The data indicate that almost one in two of them reported experiencing a current or recent mental health condition.  The most common maladies were depression (36 percent) and anxiety (29 percent).  These rates among community college students appear higher than estimates for students at four-year schools. 

Unfortunately, the story gets worse. Less than half of the students in our survey who needed help reported receiving any mental health services.  Compared to students at universities, where health resources are generally more robust, community college students are much less likely to have visited a health professional or receive any non-clinical counseling to support their mental health. For example, nearly six out of ten universities and four-year colleges have on-site psychiatric facilities appropriate for treating mental illness. For community colleges, it is less than one in ten. And far more community college students are uninsured, so they are less likely to be able to pay for services off-campus.

While mental health is rarely mentioned among the factors affecting community college graduation rates, challenges such as depression are strong predictors of negative outcomes like having a lower grade point average or dropping out.

There is enormous waste in any system that encourages people to attend college but does not equip those colleges to adequately serve students. Active Minds, a national organization of student mental health advocacy groups, has chapters at many community colleges organize students to educate and advocate for awareness and action on these issues in campus communities. The Jed Foundation’s Campus Program partners with community colleges to help them conduct an internal assessment of their programs, services, and opportunities for improvement. Organizations like Single Stop can help students access public benefits such as Medicaid and subsidized health insurance supported by the Affordable Care Act.

But efforts to date are not enough.  America bills itself as a land of opportunity.  Community college can help reduce inequality and give people the knowledge and credentials to break out of poverty. Improving the mental health of college populations is a wise investment, because it will help our nation make the most of the billions that tax payers and students alike are already contributing to fund their college dreams.

Sean was mistreated as a child in terrible ways, ways that left lasting mental scars.  But despite these wounds, and despite a youth spent in deep poverty, he has pushed himself all the way to college.  To not offer him the help he needs to finish is unconscionable.

Goldrick-Rab is professor of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and founding director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab. Eisenberg is associate professor at University of Michigan’s School of Public Health and Institute for Social Research.


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