Collaborating on Mental Health Practices at Rural Community Colleges

September 9, 2022

In rural communities, mental health services are often limited and individuals that are seeking support must travel to cities which can be quite a distance away from their home. While society and the notion of seeking mental health supports is becoming more accepted and not viewed as taboo as it once was, many rural community colleges are determining how to better support the mental health of their students, faculty, and staff. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw many organizations and institutions create innovative solutions to longstanding issues very quickly. One of which has been the access to telehealth. Telehealth allows an individual to connect to a medical or mental health service provider remotely to obtain the care that they need. For many in rural communities this is a big step in the right direction, as access to mental health services has not always been readily available. However, one concern is the access to broadband and the ability to connect to telehealth sessions where individuals can seek support.

During our recent Peer Learning Network discussion, we continued the conversation on mental health from our recent webinar Protecting the Mental Health of Rural Community College Students: Creative Innovations in Challenging Times. Throughout this discussion, we were able to collaborate with and learn from rural community college leaders about their institution’s mental health services, capacities, development, and implementation.

Dedicated Mental Health Support Staff

At rural community colleges, many of the staff members are wearing multiple hats to ensure the operations and student support are maintained. When the rural community college leaders in attendance were asked if their institution have dedicated staff that have a primary function to support student mental health, there was a split in the responses. Some institutions that have dedicated staff primarily supporting student mental health indicated that they have recently launched dedicated social workers and mental therapists on campus. They understand the importance of mental health support services and are just beginning their journey of providing these services to students. One rural community college leader stated, “we know that we have to do this work if we believe in helping students be successful.”

Other institutions revealed due to their location they have a counseling center on campus which has two full-time counselors and administrative support staff to support the counseling center. These community college leaders stated that the services and mental health professionals that are on campus are essential because they are rural. Since these institutions are in a rural location and not located near a four-year institution that they could potentially partner with, many students look to the community college to obtain the necessary mental health services that they require.

However, not all rural community colleges have the capacity to have a dedicated staff member which primarily supports student mental health. These institutions are utilizing their current staff and/or faculty to support students and provide mental health services. Staff that work within student affairs are tasked with providing additional support to students that are seeking mental health services. Other institutions have a threat assessment team which will follow up directly with students when a staff or faculty member has concerns about a student.

For each of the respondents it was stated that regardless of the internal staff capacity, there are partnerships that have been established with local community organizations which provide mental health services. These established partnerships allow the rural community college to refer students that are seeking mental health services. Additionally, when partnering with community organizations and/or mental health professionals in the community it was suggested that institutions should establish MOUs with these providers and document the how faculty and staff can refer students to them.

Mental Health Resources on Campus

The mental health services at rural community colleges vary from institution to institution. However, it is acknowledged that there is a growing need for mental health support and services for students, faculty, and staff. While some rural community colleges have basic student support services, others have begun to expand their mental health resources and services. For example, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, rural institutions began to leverage telehealth services for their students. As we emerge from the pandemic, students are also seeking in person sessions in support of their mental health.

In addition to the counseling services that are available to students, some institutions provide therapy animals, alcohol and substance abuse counselors/programs, and online programs/resources that students can access at all hours of the day or night to seek support. The diverse access of mental health services at rural community colleges means that many of these institutions leverage community partners and resources that can provide direct support and resources to students and their mental health needs.

Development and Implementation of Mental Health Services

Each institution is at a different place in their journey to providing mental health services for their students. Some institutions indicated that they were just getting started in providing mental health services to their students. While others indicated that they already have established Wellness Centers and are looking to add additional programs and supports. Reflecting on how mental health services were developed and implemented at their institutions, many institutions stated that faculty and/or staff have been the primary drivers in developing these services.

During the discussion it was noted that students should also be a part of the conversation in developing and implementing these services. Understanding what the needs are from students when developing the mental health services and resources can help ensure that they are implemented intentionally.

Additionally, communication and training are key to allowing faculty and staff to support any student seeking mental health services. Faculty have more opportunities to interact with students and therefore students become more comfortable with them. As a result, when a student is seeking support, they can reach out to someone that they are more comfortable speaking to. Training faculty and communicating with them on what mental health resources are available and how to direct students to these services is paramount.

Collaborating on Mental Health Practices

Mental health services and supports is a growing need for everyone, not just students, faculty, and staff. Each individual has unique needs, and the ability to address and support those needs can ensure the growth and success of that individual. Every student attending a rural community college has multiple commitments and responsibilities. These can potentially limit when a student can access mental health services. However, knowing that there are services available, whether via online, telephone, telehealth, a staff/faculty member, or a dedicated professional, can make a world of difference especially to a student in need.

Therefore, when rural community colleges are beginning their initial conversations on what mental health services and resources they should provide, they should bring students into the conversations. Once the services are available, institutions should not only have just a dedicated team, but should also train other staff and faculty on how they can support students and where to direct students seeking mental health services. As educators we are supporting our students throughout their journey in education. Thus, we need to ensure that they are a part of the discussion to learn what services they need and how we can best support them. Identifying the general resources, supports, and services that we have on campus and sharing these with everyone on campus can go a very long way to ensuring students are supported in their higher education journey.

Sean Robins is the Policy Associate at the Association of Community College Trustees leading the Strengthening Rural Community Colleges Initiative to convene rural community college leaders while providing technical support, assistance, and resources on federal policy and advocacy. This initiative builds on ACCT’s prior work through the Strengthening Rural Community Colleges report that engaged rural community college presidents and trustees to gather information about the challenges faced by these institutions.

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