Community Colleges Brace For Surge In Student Mental Health Needs

Los Angeles Trade Tech College is one of nine colleges in the Los Angeles Community College system. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

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Mental health services in California community colleges are severely underfunded compared to the University of California and Cal State systems. As the coronavirus crisis lingers and emotional pressures rise, some administrators worry that they won't be able to meet all of their students' needs.

Many students are stressed out by the shift to online learning and the accompanying lack of face-to-face support. Soaring job losses are also taking a toll in particular on the state's community college students, who tend to have lower incomes and need full-time work to pay for their education.

Messages sent to Crisis Text Line, a third-party service that partners with the community college system to support and advise students in crisis, increased 12% from February to March. The top issues reported were anxiety and stress, followed by relationship issues, then depression and sadness.

"More people are reaching out to Crisis Text Line, and that's true across the nation and for California community colleges," said Jana French, the organization's business development manager.

(California community college students can text the word COURAGE to 741-741 to reach one of the company's trained volunteers, who respond with coping techniques or contacts for mental health resources.)


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Larry Resendez, dean of student services at Los Angeles Mission College in Sylmar, said he's concerned about students in crisis who are trying to cope on their own.

"There are hundreds, if not more, that clearly are dealing with a lot of high levels of stress, and anxiety, and maybe depression," he said.

NINE COMMUNITY COLLEGES WANT TO SHARE SERVICES

Resendez is a member of a task force formed by the Los Angeles Community College District to deal with an expected surge in calls for help from students in the nine-campus system. He said L.A. Mission College is working to partner with Luminarias Institute in nearby San Fernando to bring mental health therapist interns to back up campus staff.

"If there is this surge that we're expecting, it will give students access to folks who can kind of assess, triage, and determine what they need," he said.

His campus took action early after it closed last month and moved classes and services online. Administrators set up a phone bank to check in on its 12,000 students. So far, they've reached about half of them.

MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES FALLING SHORT AT COMMUNITY COLLEGES

Still, mental health resources are scarce compared with local four-year universities. Resendez said L.A. Mission employs about one mental health therapist for every 5,000 students. A few years ago, faculty at nearby Cal State Northridge organized protests because it had just one therapist for every 2,800 students, far above the 1,500-to-1 ratio recommended for colleges.

L.A. Mission College pays for much of student health through an $11-per-semester student health fee. CSU Northridge charges students $75 per semester. UCLA charges students $376 per quarter for student services that include mental health counseling.

"That's just not a whole lot of money to provide physical health and mental health services," Resendez said.