Waubonsee Voices: The importance of mental health awareness at community colleges

Christian Locke

Mental health impacts virtually all factors that predict academic and personal success in college, including students’ concentration, attention, critical thinking, motivation and perseverance. The Mental Health Early Action on Campus Act (MHEAC), an initiative to require Illinois public colleges and universities to prioritize mental health, was passed in Illinois in 2019 and went into effect in July 2020, just as the state realized the pandemic wouldn’t resolve soon.

The MHEAC Act itself is groundbreaking. Illinois public colleges and universities are now required by law to provide increased mental health awareness efforts on campus, develop strategic mental health partnerships with agencies in the community, implement an anonymous online mental health screening tool, create a mental health peer-to-peer support program, and more. According to the Healthy Minds Study 2020-2021, which collects data from 373 campuses nationwide, 60% of the college students surveyed met the criteria for at least one mental health problem.

We’ve had excellent personal counseling services and mental health awareness programming at Waubonsee for decades. And many of the mandates of MHEAC were already in place. However, the opportunity for additional funding to support enhanced mental health services and awareness on campus is exciting. The pandemic delayed state funding by several years, but the grant funding for MHEAC was approved for 2023-2025 (though it still needs to be fully appropriated). Waubonsee has already implemented the mental health online screening tool, reinforced community partnerships and continued our efforts to provide mental health support and awareness on campus.

Over the past year, the counseling team and the Student Success and Retention leadership have been developing the Waubonsee Peer Support Program. This mental health peer-to-peer support program is designed to provide 1:1 peer mentorship and mental health support by students for students as outlined in MHEAC. On March 6, 2023, we hired our first three Peer Support Leaders, all full-time students at Waubonsee. They’ve been certified in peer mentorship and mental health support and will receive ongoing training. We’re excited that two of our Peer Support Leaders are fluent in English and Spanish. The Waubonsee Peer Support Program is ready to make a difference on campus just in time for Mental Health Awareness Month in May.

The Peer Support team has launched a web-based learning management system for students, faculty and staff that provides mental health information and wellness skills. It lists campus and community resources both in English and in Spanish. The program will be moving forward with 1:1 drop-ins, scheduled appointments, wellness presentations and workshops for summer and fall 2023 (and beyond).

The beauty of creating a mental health program that is 100% peer initiated and peer-led is the freedom with which organic connections will be made between students in need and students who share a similar journey. Students are more likely to converse about their mental health with other students. And in this model, Waubonsee’s counseling staff will train Peer Support Leaders to provide their peers with the highest mental health protocols and resources. The program will also support minorities or first-generation students who feel more comfortable talking to someone they can relate to firsthand or who looks like them.

Community colleges support a diverse student population who often face financial difficulties, balancing work/school/family demands, transportation issues and lack of access to health and mental health supports. Under these conditions, mental health and wellness can feel out of reach -- like a luxury, not a necessity. Today every Illinois community college student can have access to free mental health services. I’m excited about the innovation that comes when community colleges prioritize mental health on the same level as physical and emotional health and well-being.

• Christian Locke is a counselor at Waubonsee Community College.