Addressing the Mental Health Crisis in Our Community Colleges

On Monday, August 2, 2021, the MHANJ was honored to co-sponsor and participate in a webinar with the New Jersey Center for Student Success and The Council of Community Colleges (NJCCC). The webinar, entitled Addressing the Mental Health of Community College Students was the first virtual, statewide convening about community college and mental health.

Host Jacob Farbman, EdD., APR, and Executive Director of the New Jersey Center for Student Success, welcomed statewide participants and noted NJCCC’s appreciation for the partnership with the MHANJ. This event was the first step in what promises to be a productive partnership between MHANJ and the New Jersey Council of Community Colleges (NJCCC).

Representing the MHANJ were Robert Kley, Vice-President and COO; Betty Jean, MA, LPC, CCTP, Director of the MHANJ’s Call Center Services; Ruth Kaluski, MS, CRC, LMHC, Statewide Director for Mental Health First Aid program and Director for the Career Connection Employment Institute; and Jaime Angelini, MA, DRCC, Director of Disaster Response and Special Projects.

Aaron Fichtner, Ph.D., President of NJCCC thanked the 75 leaders, Community College presidents and staff of over 18 Council Colleges, in attendance. He expressed sincere thanks for the team at MHANJ remarking that “this is the beginning of what will be a collective effort to make sure all community college students have the support they need.”

Mr. Kley shared the MHANJ’s 75-plus year history as a leading New Jersey advocacy organization for mental health. He noted that the Association focuses heavily on prevention and access to services using a peer model method. Mr. Kley also noted that the Association has always been a collaborative organization which makes it an ideal partner for the New Jersey Center for Student Success and the NJCCC.

Other MHANJ leaders discussed different aspects of mental health programs and services as they relate to the community college student.

As a community college professor herself, Ms. Jean shared that she teaches the very students that this new initiative is designed to reach. She said, “This is a very particular community with their own dynamics and complexities requiring a unique level of attention and care. They may be handling more responsibility than a typical college student; perhaps a job or family responsibility in addition to course work.” The pressure and greater responsibilities that this population bears may affect their mental health.

Ms. Kaluski spoke of the need to normalize mental health conversations. She said, “These conversations should be normal and typical. Keeping quiet about mental health serves nobody well. We know that young people are experiencing signs and symptoms very early. So, we can’t wait. We have evidence-based practices that we can use.” One of the programs utilized by MHANJ is Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) which is an evidence-based program and is already being offered on some New Jersey campuses.

Ms. Angelini gave an overview of QPR, an evidence-based suicide prevention training. QPR stands for Q-question, P-persuade, R-refer. Ms. Angelini said, “It is a gatekeeper training, and we focus on the idea that gatekeepers can be really anyone in the community and this program gives the tools and confidence to know how to respond through conversation.”

In addition to the leaders from the MHANJ, Mary Jean Weston, Central Regional Coordinator of the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services, part of the New Jersey Department of Human Services, gave an enlightening presentation detailing the state’s vast array of mental health services. She cited the close working relationship of the state with the Mental Health Association to deliver these services.

Stephanie Berdugo-Hernandez, a current student at Rowan College of Burlington County, gave a heartfelt talk on the difficulties of being bullied and how it affected her mental health, resulting in anxiety and depression. She discussed how stigma prevents many from seeking help and expressed gratitude for the support that she was able to attain from school counselors and principals.

The webinar included a panel discussion with Hudson and Passaic County Community Colleges along with Ethan Fields, Manager for Higher Ed Programming, Promotions and Outreach at the Jed Foundation, who outlined their programs such as Jed Campus and Jed High School. Christopher Jeune, Executive Director of Student Services at Brookdale Community College, described Talk Campus, an app that functions as a peer-to-peer support network that students can use anonymously. Mr. Jeune reiterated that this does not replace campus counseling or campus mental health services.

Finally, a team from Bergen County Community College conducted a roundtable discussion featuring current innovative campus practices used to support mental health.

In the coming weeks, expect more detailed announcements regarding MHANJ’s plans to collaborate with NJCCC bringing mental health expertise to New Jersey’s college campuses.

For more information, contact Robert Kley by emailing him at rkley@mhanj.org or by calling 973-571-4100, ext. 123.

Click to view the Addressing the Mental Health of Community College Students webinar.