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A new study provides evidence of slow and steady recognition that mental health services matter at two-year colleges.

Data from the American College Counseling Association show that even as their enrollments have swelled, community college counseling centers continue to have proportionally fewer resources than do their counterparts at four-year institutions.

But the study by the association's Community College Task Force also reveals that two-year institutions, on balance, are increasing staffing at their counseling centers and providing more and better mental health counseling to students than they were just two years earlier.

The survey of about counselors at about 200 community colleges in 43 states is a companion to the National Survey of College Counseling that the counseling group publishes each year. Data about two-year institutions are harder to come by, and in many ways community college administrators view counseling centers differently from their peers at four-year colleges, expecting them to provide academic and career counseling as well as mental health services.

A rash of recent incidents involving violence and other forms of hazardous behavior at community colleges points more than ever to the need for two-year institutions to pay close attention to the mental health services they make available to students, said Amy M. Lenhart, a professional counselor at Collin College and chair of the counseling association's Community College Task Force.

The data in the 2012-13 iteration of the task force's survey shows many of the same issues that were evident during the group's last study, in 2011: the vast majority (86 percent) of community colleges have no on-site psychiatry resources, while nearly 6 in 10 four-year institutions do, and between half and two-thirds of the community college counselors say they are charged with providing career and academic services as well as mental health support.

"Sadly, we don't fare well in the comparison between community colleges and four-year institutions, despite all the stuff going on," said Lenhart.

But the study's data also show that the two-year institutions surveyed are increasingly engaging in better practices and hiring more counseling staff, if not at a sufficient pace to keep up with growing enrollments and intensifying student demands, as seen in the table below. More institutions reported in 2012-13 that they were creating threat intervention teams and leaning on mental health professionals for consultations and referrals than they were in 2011, and the survey showed increases in staffing and in the qualifications of staff members.

Practices and Staffing at 2-Year-College Counseling Centers

My college: 2011 2012-13
--Provides mental health counseling 68.3% 73.1%
--Has a threat/behavioral intervention team 71.3 78.2
--Has access to a mental health professional for consultation 53.8 63.6
--Has access to a mental health professional for referral 37.7 75.2
--Provides suicide prevention resources 57.0 62.2
--Never provides mandated treatment for suicidal/violent students 37.0 33.6
--Never provide mandated assessment for suicidal/violent students 28.9 31.0
--Is seeing higher severity of mental health issues compared to past years 60.8 67.0
My counseling center:    
Has 0 full-time counselors on staff 15.8 7.8
Has 1 full-time counselor on staff 29.3 33.6
Has at least 2 full-time counselors/therapists 54.9 58.6
Has at least 1 administrative support positions 67.9 75.2
Requires state licensure for mental health providers 41.8 47.2

Source: Survey of Community/2 Year College Counseling Services

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