May is an exciting time at Ventura County's community colleges. We celebrate the achievements of nearly 5,300 students in the class of 2022 from Moorpark, Oxnard and Ventura colleges who earned their degrees and certificates and honor the faculty and classified staff who helped them on their journey.
May is also Mental Health Awareness Month, where we join efforts nationwide to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues. These issues range from stress, anxiety and mild depression to more severe mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
The focus on graduation and mental health this month is a reminder that even during joyous times, underlying challenges can exist for college students.
Students are under pressure to balance school with work and family, financial obligations and the societal pressure to succeed in whatever they attempt. The pandemic exacerbated the existing stressors and added new ones.
Key 2022 findings from Mental Health America present a stark picture: "Over 2.5 million youth in the U.S. have severe depression; multiracial youth are at the greatest risk…Suicidal ideation continues to increase in adults in the U.S., with 4.58% reporting they have had serious thoughts of suicide, an increase of 664,000 people from last year's dataset."
Many areas of distress increased in fall 2021 compared to pre-COVID levels, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, which studied the initial impacts of COVID-19 on college students who sought treatment. "The rise in academic distress, social anxiety, family distress, eating concerns and lifetime experiences of trauma and sexual assaults were particularly notable."
The article concludes that these findings point to the need for colleges and universities "to be proactive in supporting the mental health needs of students as they cope with these elevated levels of distress and adapt to life during these challenging times."
Long before COVID-19, the California Community Colleges (CCC) realized the need for student health, mental health, wellness and basic needs services. In 2011, it launched the Student Mental Health Program implemented by CalMHSA (California Mental Health Services Authority).
There is no shortage of statistics to drive home the message that mental health services aren't optional — they’re a necessity.
This is why Moorpark, Oxnard and Ventura colleges go beyond educating all our students through academic and hands-on learning. We address the whole student, meaning we offer support services outside the classroom to help them succeed.
The Ventura County Community College District’s board of trustees supports our ongoing student initiative surrounding mental health education and awareness in collaboration with the colleges. The campaign, "Help Happens Here," informs students of the free, confidential mental health services available on our campuses.
Districtwide, our therapists provided 6,746 appointment hours of services to students from March 2020 to April 19, 2021. These numbers don't include student health coordinator and staff hours related to mental health support, campus outreach and other support activities. (Services were primarily telehealth appointments due to pandemic-related remote instruction.)
Students sought help for anxiety, stress, suicidal ideation, depression and feeling disconnected from friends and family. The colleges' mental health therapists refer students with more severe challenges to partner agencies, such as Ventura County Behavioral Health and other community mental health providers and organizations.
VCCCD students can also attend many free, confidential support groups, including those for LGBTQ+ students and their allies, veterans, nursing students, athletes and students with learning disabilities.
A Mayo Clinic Health System article noted up to 75% of students are hesitant to reach out for help when they are struggling. This resistance puts them at an increased risk of dropping out of college, getting poor grades, suicide and substance abuse.
We are grateful that our students do seek help. There isn’t a stigma in getting therapy; it's become normalized, say our mental health therapists. We must continue reaching out to all our students and increase our efforts to address their mental health.
VCCCD is committed to educating our student population to be aware of their mental health and to prioritize it. When they do, the long-lasting benefits will extend to their children, friends, family and employers.
Greg Gillespie, Ph.D., is the chancellor of the Ventura County Community College District. For more information about the District, visit VCCCD.edu. For information about mental health services for students, visit the Student Health Centers on Moorpark, Oxnard and Ventura colleges’ websites.