By Donna Gray

Colorado Mountain College is launching a pilot program aimed at improving mental health and disability services for its students. A $300,000 grant from the Colorado Health Foundation will enable the college to develop expanded mental health support and disability testing services.

The grant will fund research to evaluate support and testing programs, to help determine the best and most efficient use of the college’s resources in supporting students.

Over the past few years, CMC’s student support services staff and faculty have seen a rising number of students in need of support in response to mental health issues. This is just the local embodiment of a national trend. According to Psychology Today, evidence suggests that American college students have greater levels of stress and mental illness than at any time in the country’s history; this includes traditional (age 18-24) and nontraditional (25 and older) students.

Lisa Doak, the college’s assistant vice president for student services, said that for many students a combination of navigating multiple cultures, the current economy, general uncertainty, balancing relationships and social media bring about stress leading to anxiety and depression.

Recent nationwide studies have noted a growing trend among high school students who are coping with higher levels of anxiety, according to the Nov. 7, 2016, issue of Time magazine. These high school graduates “are our incoming student body,” said Doak. “In their lives there have always been terrorist attacks, mass public shootings and overload from social media.”

And, she added, they’ve seen their parents struggle to survive the recent recession, creating unprecedented uncertainty and social pressures. That translates to more and more students needing stress management and coping skills.

Beyond stress and anxiety, some students also have more serious mental health issues to deal with. Doak said according to the American College Health Association, one in four college students have a diagnosable mental illness. Colorado’s suicide rate, which has been among the highest in the country, has been climbing, according to a report from the Colorado Health Foundation which was featured in a May article in The Denver Post.

Among the goals of the pilot program is to increase the number of students who can access mental health services and disability testing, which will help them to succeed in college. New and expanded services will include mental health screenings, peer intervention education, infusing life/coping skills into student success classes and ongoing peer support groups with trained student mentors, overseen by a professional facilitator.

In addition, the program aims to assist students who can’t afford to be professionally assessed for a disability such as a learning disability. Americans with Disabilities Act legislation requires college students to have documentation of a disability to receive accommodations. Students who can’t afford the testing are at a disadvantage; the pilot testing will be based on financial need to assist low-income students. “Oftentimes, after such a barrier is removed, and a student gets the right support, we see them flourish,” Doak said.

“CMC currently partners with Mind Springs Health in Garfield, Routt, Pitkin, Eagle and Summit counties and Sol Vista Health in Lake and Chaffee counties to provide mental health services for students” she said. “As mental health needs of students increase, we are looking for cost-effective ways to help students address their needs and stay on track to completing their educational goals. We are enthused about the possibilities; the outcomes of this work will guide the college in expanding programs, services and community partnerships to further meet needs of students and remove barriers.”

Colorado Mountain College nursing faculty, under the leadership of faculty member Charlotte Strahm, will conduct research on current as well as prospective mental health support and disability testing services. Betty Damask-Bembenek, the college’s director of nursing education, said, “At the end of the four-year pilot program, a report will be issued evaluating those services and making recommendations about which are the most effective and available for students.”