Colorado Mountain College to spend $300K on student mental health services

Many students enrolled in the Colorado Mountain College system are balancing school with family and work. Sometimes, they’re even taking on multiple jobs to get ahead.

Lisa Doak, CMC’s assistant vice president for student services, said that frazzling dynamic could set the stage for mental health issues down the road.

“For some students, their families, their relationships and perhaps family pressures for achievement are often the stressors you hear about,” Doak said. “If students don’t have well developed skills or are not in the process of learning how to manage, sometimes we see anxiety and depression come forward.”

That’s why CMC wants to strengthen its commitment to student success with an expanded mental health support network across its 11 campuses, which are sprinkled throughout the High Country in communities such as Breckenridge, Glenwood Springs, Aspen and Steamboat Springs.

CMC recently accepted a $300,000 grant to launch a program that bolsters its behavioral health and disability services. With the Colorado Health Foundation funding, CMC aims to help lead a statewide movement to bring mental illness to the fore as a public health issue. The long-term goal is to ensure its diverse student population has the mental health resources necessary for academic advancement.

National studies show about one in five American adults experience a mental illness annually, or approximately 43.8 million people each year. According to the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, young adulthood is a time when such disorders surface, with 75 percent of these health issues emerging by age 24.

That statistic encompasses mostly traditional students who enter a college or university shortly after completing high school. Community college students, on the other hand, comprise a broader age range, one spanning from recent high school grads to older adults looking to make a career change. Over the next four years, CMC wants to use the grant money to help identify behavioral health methods that can benefit a full spectrum of undergrads.

“As a community college, our first priority and reason for being is education,” said Doak, “and helping students to gain new skills so they can improve their lives and the lives of their families. So we hope the information in the first year helps to inform us well beyond the four years with how we can best support students with their mental health needs.”

The grant is also intended to study whether students are making use of existing services for cognitive or physical impairments. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that students have documentation to receive school accommodations, but that can be expensive. These evaluations range in price from hundreds to several thousands of dollars. CMC plans to look for ways to reduce those fees through continued partnerships with groups like the Colorado Health Foundation.

The health foundation’s financial pledge aligns with its mission of advocacy and evaluation for learning and assessment. Following a statewide listening tour in 2016, the Denver-based nonprofit heard firsthand from community members in each of Colorado’s 64 counties how critical access to mental health services remains.

“Rural towns have less access to just health-care providers, particularly behavioral health,” said Maribel Cifuentes, a senior program officer for the health foundation. “CMC services 20,000 students across nine counties, so is very well positioned to really address the need of these college students. It’s just a really important investment to provide a system of care to identify mental health problems and intervene as early as possible.”

Teaching students coping skills and how to connect with school-based resources top the list of what CMC strives to accomplish in the coming years with the grant. Student support groups have been identified as one approach CMC will implement early on.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase of peer support, and just how to help each other,” said Doak. “As we all know, people are much more likely to listen to peers, and college students are no different.”

Student feedback will play a large part in determining what mental health practices CMC adopts in the future.

“It is truly about coming up with some effective methods of helping students with mental health concerns,” Doak added. “We hope to try a few of them in the first year to look at specifically which programs we want to put effort and energy into, and then where and how we’re going to implement those programs.”