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State College Mental Health Task Force Mulls Recommended Improvements

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Mental health professionals on college campuses say more students year over year are seeking services for new and ongoing mental health and substance use issues. They say it’s not a bad thing that students are being proactive about their mental health -- but resources are strained. 

And now a state task force, composed of directors and leaders of counseling services at Connecticut colleges, is charged with looking at the kinds of services available to students, identifying gaps in care and making recommendations on how the state can better support higher education institutions in handling a growing demand.

“Students are coming in more and more numbers, and it is putting a burden, I think, on the college counseling centers themselves to think about, how can we provide counseling to the growing number of students?” said Nicholas Pinkerton, director of counseling services at Southern Connecticut State University.

Experts cited several reasons for the higher demand for behavioral health care services on college campuses, among them that more young people are comfortable seeking help for mental health issues.

Another reason is that mental health treatment has improved, which has led to more students with lifelong or serious mental illnesses being able to attend college.

According to the most recent survey data from the American College Health Association, 1 in 5 students reported that depression affects their academic performance. Nearly 28% of students reported difficulty with anxiety.

Suicide remains the second leading cause of death in the United States for young people ages 15 through 25 years old, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Janet Spoltore, director of student counseling and health services at Connecticut College, said even as schools increase their focus on these issues, some students still slip through the cracks.

“There are those groups, the traditionally marginalized groups, that need continued outreach to de-stigmatize the process, to explain the process,” she said. “International students, transfer students, students of color, LGBTQIA students -- there are many students out there who you need to give an extra helping hand to get in.”

They may also be missing students who need help but do not seek services or share their struggles with others, Pinkerton said.

“Sometimes it’s hard to reach out and ask for support. That stigma still exists, and so, how can we do a better job of reaching those students that need it?” he asked fellow task force members. “It’s not just the students coming into the counseling center that we should be concerned with and trying to support.”

The task force is looking into possible solutions that involve more collaboration with community mental health providers, using telehealth services, improving crisis response and on-campus protocols, ensuring that medical leave of absence policies do not discriminate against students getting mental health treatment, forming trained groups of students who can help their peers, establishing more robust life skills programs and more.

But Joseph Navarra, a counselor and coordinator of disability services at Manchester Community College, said larger public and private institutions may be able to more easily make changes or add service, while most of the smaller community colleges have fewer resources and only the most basic of services on campus.

Connecticut’s 12 community colleges enrolled nearly 48,000 people in total in the fall of 2018, according to the most recent data.

“I listen to my university colleagues talk about their models, and certainly where the Connecticut community colleges are right now is so far away from that,” Navarra said. “You know, our university colleagues are doing great work and we look to them as role models for what we might be able to become someday, and we need assistance in trying to get there.”

William Fothergill, a counselor in student wellness services at Central Connecticut State University, said those challenges facing community colleges and their students affect the larger institutions.

“The community college system is a feeder to us, and if those students aren’t getting some levels of support and we’re getting those students, it’s almost like we’re starting all over again,” he said.

The task force is expected to submit a final report of recommendations to the General Assembly by early February.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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