Mental health is the biggest issue students at California community colleges say they are facing during the pandemic. That is, 67% of students report higher levels of anxiety, stress, depression, or other mental distress. The sudden transition to an online learning environment drives some of this stress, as do struggles with job and income loss or paying for housing and utilities. For some students, the loss of income means prioritizing basic needs over school.
Data show that young adults, African Americans, and Latinos are more likely to experience mental health issues that are left untreated than whites and older adults (ages 25–64). COVID-19 and entrenched inequities likely aggravate these concerns, as effects have been especially dire for California’s most vulnerable populations. Because California community colleges (CCC) enroll the highest number of Latino, African American, and low-income students, these institutions play a critical role in supporting mental health for students whose circumstances have changed radically amid the current crisis.
The pandemic has turned virtually every community college student into an online learner, a learning modality that is not particularly effective in supporting student success and equity. Furthermore, students have lost access to critical campus-based resources and supports like the library, computer lab, and academic and student services centers. These facilities offered tutoring, counseling, health, and other specialized services and also included support for populations such as veterans and students with disabilities.
For students who work, the pandemic may have led to job loss or fewer hours worked. Additionally, students who are parents may be assuming childcare or home-schooling responsibilities even as they try to continue their own education. In some cases, the strain of managing limited finances and limited time has forced students to drop classes. All of these factors can have a hand in compounding student anxiety.
Providing necessary resources to address mental health and wellness is vital to strategies for student success. The CCC Chancellor’s Office has been proactive on this front. The office provides a detailed list of mental health resources on its COVID-19 special update website and daily emails to suggest tools faculty and staff can use to support their students. Students can find comprehensive web-based resources through the CCC Student Mental Health website. Individual colleges have also continued with personal counseling services for students via phone and video conferencing.
Recent efforts by non-profits, foundations, and the CARES Act to provide emergency grants for vulnerable students can also ameliorate stress related to finances. However, there are gaps in these resources—for example, under the CARES Act, undocumented students are ineligible to receive support.
Moving forward, community colleges must prioritize mental health services and related assistance as part of a comprehensive support system. Making mental health services accessible remotely and awarding emergency grants to applicants based on financial need can help ensure the well-being and success of the students who stand to benefit most from a college degree.