Improving the Learning and Lives of Community College Students Through Improved Mental Health Resources

May 24, 2022

Improving the Learning and Lives of Community College Students Through Improved Mental Health Resources

Kaitlin P. Gallo, PhD, Sarah K. Lipson, PhD, EdM


Covid brought sharper focus to an issue that has been present at community colleges long before the pandemic: the unmet mental health needs among the country’s community college students.

Compared to most four-year college students, community college students often have additional burdens that can contribute to increased mental health needs, including financial stress. And at the same time, these students may lack access to adequate mental health services. As a result, student performance is affected, which can impact self-esteem and lead to other issues that can cause some students to leave college before achieving their degree. For example, prior research from the Healthy Minds Network shows that untreated depression is associated with a two-fold increase in the likelihood of stopping college without graduating. However, by providing improved mental health support resources, in ways that meet the demands on community college students’ time and attention, we can strengthen their learning experience; help them achieve their degrees; and improve their overall health and wellness today, and throughout their lives. 

study of ten community colleges across the country found that half of the surveyed students were experiencing or had experienced a recent mental health condition, and less than 30 percent of these students were receiving any mental health services. Community college students sometimes experience stressors and burdens that can contribute to, or exacerbate, mental health issues at even higher rates than students at four-year colleges and universities. In fact, a survey conducted before the pandemic found that more than half of community college students were struggling with food and housing insecurity. Of course, these risk factors for poor mental health are not equally distributed across populations and disproportionately affect students of color, immigrant students, and those with adverse childhood experiences. Furthermore, many community college students work full- or part-time jobs, have family obligations, and commute to school. These life circumstances can add stress to students’ lives and make it harder for those with mental health needs to access wellness programs and services.

Often facing budget constraints, community colleges are put in a difficult position if expected to provide adequate levels of mental health services without additional resources from state and federal governments. A survey of 30,000 California public college and university students found that the community college students were less likely to receive mental health treatment as compared to the four-year college students. A 2021 paper from the Healthy Minds Study looked at mental health prevalence and access to care for students at 23 community colleges across the country, finding that cost was the most salient barrier to mental health care for students in need.

However, with additional funding (or use of existing funds) and policies designed to promote equity in higher education, it is possible to increase the mental health resources available to community college students that will benefit their academic performance, keep them in college, and improve their quality of life. With more funding at the state and federal levels, there are effective ways for community colleges to meet the mental health needs of students that include:

  • Ensuring that students' basic needs are met – Factors such as food and housing insecurity can exacerbate anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Starting or expanding on-campus food pantry programs and programs to help students secure affordable housing can create more stability in students' lives.
  • Increasing student financial assistance – Many college students, especially community college students, live with constant financial stress, which can have lasting mental health effects. Increasing financial assistance and factoring in the particular costs these students incur can help alleviate some stress in their lives.
  • Meeting students where they are – Providing mental health services to students in need through a combination of on-campus/local counseling services and flexible offerings like telehealth increases access by accommodating students’ location and schedule.
  • Reducing barriers to mental health services – Funding free college-based mental health programs that eliminate the additional costs and financial burdens of deductibles and co-pays will make it easier for all students to use the services when needed.
  • Bringing mental health into the academic curriculum – Provide training for faculty that increases awareness of potential mental health symptoms in students, prepares them to connect students with mental health services, and encourages the use of language that endorses self-care, including in course syllabi. Bringing mental health education into courses—whether psychology courses or statistics courses—guarantees that students are learning about mental health on an ongoing basis, creating a culture of caring and openness.
  • Reducing stigma – Including positive messaging about addressing mental health needs can be powerful for normalizing mental health concerns and raising awareness. College presidents can help reduce stigma through communication that prioritizes wellbeing, recognizes stressors, normalizes challenges, and promotes available resources. Running communication campaigns during high-stress periods for students that feature peers talking about seeking help for mental health issues can also help. Organizations like Active Minds have been leading the way in this work, including at community colleges.

Community colleges exist to provide everyone with access to higher education. But access is just the first step. We must support students once they begin their education. By providing students in need with the best available mental health services and other support services, we can improve the lives of students, help them graduate with a prosperous and healthy future, and see society benefit from their contributions.

Kaitlin P. Gallo, PhD, is a practicing clinical psychologist and the chief clinical officer of Christie Campus Health, an organization solely focused on partnering with colleges and universities to deliver mental health services to students. 

Sarah K. Lipson, PhD, EdM is an assistant professor in the Department of Health Law Policy and Management at the Boston University School of Public Health. She is Principal Investigator of the Healthy Minds Network.


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