With a Year of Crisis Text Line Data, California Community Colleges...

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With a Year of Crisis Text Line Data, California Community Colleges Launch Mental Health Program

By Sydney Johnson     Aug 2, 2018

With a Year of Crisis Text Line Data, California Community Colleges Launch Mental Health Program

This article is part of the guide: Measuring Up: How Community Colleges Define, Measure and Support Student Success.

Several community college campuses in California lack mental health services. But students today are increasingly seeking access to counseling to cope with depression, anxiety and other challenges.

Now the country’s largest community college system is turning to technology to connect more students with mental-health services—and to better understand what challenges students are grappling with most.

The California Community College system, which is made up of 114 institutions, partnered with the Crisis Text Line in May 2017 to offer students a free and anonymous way to get help during mental health emergencies. As of June, nearly 2,800 students have engaged in 4,500 conversations through the texting service, according to Colleen Ganley, a mental health specialist at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

The text line has already illuminated alarming trends. According to Ganley, anxiety and stress are the top issues facing students who use the service, representing 43 percent of instances.

Other common issues include relationship struggles, abuse, depression and sadness, and isolation and loneliness.

Data from the partnership also showed that students in the community colleges in California were far more likely than other institutions the company works with to report homelessness or financial troubles, according to a report last year on KPCC. The Crisis Text Line partners with groups ranging from corporations such as YouTube or Facebook, city governments, non-profit organizations, as well as other colleges including Penn State University and Rutgers University.

“Homelessness and financial insecurity remain challenges for far too many community college students in California,” Heather McClenahen, manager of equity programs at the Foundation for California Community Colleges, said in an email interview.

Limited Student Support

The partnership with the Crisis Text Line—which is free for the college system as well as for students—has been one answer to rising demand for mental-health interventions at colleges.

Rates of depression and anxiety have slowly increased in recent years, and more college students are looking for help. From 2010-2015, for example, the number of college students seeking to use campus counseling centers increased 30 to 40 percent, while enrollment grew by 5 percent, according to an annual report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health.

Meanwhile, on-campus counseling services have also been slow to catch up with increasing demand in California, where 95 of the 114 community college campuses have physical student mental health service centers.

And addressing stress and anxiety is crucial to increasing student success and completion at community colleges, which often serve large populations of students who are low-income or are the first in their families to go to college, says Ganley. “If a student is not well—physically or mentally—their likelihood of graduating and staying the course and doing that in as timely a manner as possible is reduced.”

Some “students find it easier to reach out for support via text, it can be anonymous and done without others knowing or noticing,” says McClenahen.

Officials working in mental health services for California Community Colleges have access to an anonymized data dashboard with information on what topics students text in with, how the tool is used, peak days and hours, and even what area codes appear most.

That data is gathered through a specific keyword—“COURAGE”—that the Crisis Text Line created for the California Community Colleges in order to separate the college student’s data. Students text the keyword to the Crisis Text Line number, 741741, and an automated response asks the student to describe their situation. The student is then forwarded to a trained human volunteer whose goal is to de-escalate the conversation to a calmer place and refer the student to further help if necessary.

Plans With Data

The next step is to try to raise awareness of the service, by starting a student ambassador program, with 15 student volunteers this fall.

“We are going to focus on direct outreach to students, which is a big change for our program this year,” says McClenahen. “We have been primarily focused on faculty and staff over the last couple of years.”

Students who apply and are selected will receive a small stipend and will travel to Sacramento for a two-day suicide prevention training and attend sessions about other resources available to students so they can refer peers to the most appropriate help.

The students will be expected to host at least two in-person mental health awareness events on campus to promote the textline and other mental health resources, as well as work to reduce stigma around seeking services. Other activities will be determined by the students, who will be assigned a faculty advisor.

Of course, 15 ambassadors spread across 114 campuses may not reach a significant portion of students, and “one student ambassador on a campus of 30,000 students may not make a dent,” says McClenahen. But her team hopes student ambassadors may attract a network to promote mental wellness on campuses.

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