UCLA helps California community colleges fight depression

The University of California, Los Angeles has launched a new center dedicated to the study and treatment of depression in California community college students.

Leaders of the new ALACRITY, or Advanced Laboratories for Accelerating the Reach and Impact of Treatments for Youth and Adults with Mental Illness, center plan to launch several research projects focused on student mental health beginning in the next academic year. The research builds on an ongoing partnership with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and the university’s Depression Grand Challenge, a large-scale effort led by UCLA scholars to combat the ravages of the Depression. The projects are funded by a five-year, $12 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Michelle Craske, co-director of the ALACRITY center and the Depression Grand Challenge at UCLA, said depression doesn’t just affect the individual who suffers, but has a “widespread” ripple effect on societies as a whole.

“It not only affects the well-being and emotional functioning of the individual [but also] job performance, parenting and community involvement,” said Craske, who is also a distinguished professor of psychology, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the university. Depression is “very impactful. It’s common, yet existing treatments are only partially effective.

She and her colleagues want to figure out how to extend “gold standard” care to community college students, who are disproportionately from low-income backgrounds and experience a unique set of mental health issues while generally having less access to mental health resources. on their campus. A 2021 report from the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University found that 39% of students at two-year institutions faced food insecurity, compared to 29% of students at four-year universities.

“In community colleges, there’s a very diverse range of life contexts that I would argue collide and mutually exacerbate mental health issues,” Craske said. “This is a group that is under-resourced, facing huge challenges in life and yet very resilient. Because despite food insecurity, despite financial problems, despite being a single mother, despite being a veteran with PTSD, they go to college and try to improve their lives.

Center researchers will conduct a five-year study that will enroll approximately 200 East Los Angeles College students each year into the Anxiety and Depression Screening and Treatment Program, or STAND, beginning this fall. The program, introduced at UCLA in 2017 and rolling out to East Los Angeles College in the spring of 2021, surveys students online to find out if they suffer from anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation, then guides them to the one of three levels of care based on severity. of their symptoms.

Students are either guided through an online program that teaches stress coping mechanisms, connected to trained peer coaches via video chat, or referred to clinicians who can provide in-person counseling and medication as needed. Researchers will check on students who enroll in the study weekly as they progress through the STAND program during the academic year. They will be asked about a range of factors that could affect their mental health and treatment needs, such as substance abuse issues, medical and family history, and food and housing insecurity. These variables will be used to inform an algorithm being tested in the study to potentially improve how students are sorted into different levels of care.

Craske said the goal of the study is to assess how “the whole context of the individual” – including childhood trauma or adversity, medical issues, past experiences with a mental health treatment and their level of social support from friends and family – affects the level of treatment students might need.

“It has enormous value for the clinical world in general,” she said. “Almost everyone relies on the severity of symptoms, but you can imagine, for example, someone who is only moderately anxious or moderately depressed, but has no social support in their life, who is financially stressed , who has medical issues on. They might actually benefit from a clinician even if their level of severity is moderate.

Jessica Olivas, coordinator of the Student Health Center at East Los Angeles College, said many students on campus are the first in their families to go to college and may not have the habit of asking for help.

One of the benefits of rolling out the STAND program at the college is that “students can easily pick up an electronic device, their phone, their tablet and have access to mental health care,” which is a big plus during the pandemic, a she declared. .

Sonia Lopez, dean of student services at East Los Angeles College, added that the program can be a less daunting gateway to mental health care since it begins with online questions rather than a meeting. with a therapist. She hopes the research from the ALACRITY center at the college can be a resource for administrators at other two-year institutions looking to improve their mental health services.

“As educators, we know that mental health is something we need to address, certainly with our students at the community college level,” she said. “And there is very little research being done on this population” in terms of mental health. She thinks that’s partly because two-year institutions don’t have the research infrastructure of many universities and because they’re often suburban campuses, “so it’s very difficult to see and to observe students for an extended period of time, other than the time they are in class.”

She is grateful that the college is part of an expanding body of research on the mental health needs of community college students.

ALACRITY Center researchers also chose 10 Los Angeles-area community colleges, including East Los Angeles College, to participate in another study involving the Healthy Minds Survey, an assessment of student mental health conducted at colleges. and universities nationwide over the past 15 years. by a team of academics. The survey will be given to a sample of at least 5,000 students on each campus to assess rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse among their students, as well as their use of the various mental health services available on their campuses. and any obstacles to accessing it.

Daniel Eisenberg, professor of health policy and management at UCLA, who leads the Healthy Minds survey, said the project’s goal was “to help schools get a more accurate picture of what their students might need” and “further specify provide more resources for student mental health in these schools.

Each community college will ultimately receive a report containing the results of the survey from its individual campus. A full report will also be sent to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office to help system leaders advocate for increased state funding for mental health resources on their campuses, Craske added.

Nance Roy, clinical director of the Jed Foundation, an organization dedicated to emotional health and suicide prevention among young people, pointed out that community colleges are enrolling students of traditional age, an age group known for its high rates. high levels of depression and anxiety, but they also disproportionately serve older adult learners who grapple with a different set of challenges.

Older students may face situations such as “dealing with aging parents or childcare or trying to juggle work and school or work, school and family, financial constraints”, she said. declared.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated already growing mental health issues among students.

“During the pandemic, many, many people have suffered losses, whether it’s dying people they know or family members, maybe parents, who have lost their jobs, battling the coronavirus pandemic. housing insecurity and the resulting food insecurity, certainly the isolation and loneliness of young people,” she said. “Just because the pandemic may be waning doesn’t mean the impact of these traumas is going away. They come to campus grieving, with loss and anguish.

Markie Pasternak, senior director of higher education at Active Minds, an organization focused on promoting the mental health of young adults, said now is a fertile time for an initiative such as that of the ALACRITY center, as there are a lot of membership among higher education institutions. leaders and funders to support efforts to develop better mental health services.

“We’ve done a really good job, I think, over the last 10, 15 years of destigmatizing mental illness and treating mental health,” she said. “I think a lot more people now want to talk about mental health and are more open to conversation, but the next question a lot of people are asking is, how do you talk about mental health? The awareness is there, especially post-pandemic, but now that we have the majority of people with mental health on board in a destigmatized way… how do we mobilize that now?

Eisenberg noted that the ALACRITY center is beginning its work at a time when virtual mental health services are gaining more interest and potential benefits are being explored.

“We’re at a point where we know digital mental health resources can be very useful, but we haven’t quite figured out how to deliver them at scale yet,” he said. “The key is going to be integrating digital resources into the in-person communities that people are already part of,” because otherwise these resources are often ignored or overlooked. “I think the fact that we’re working with community college communities, like real communities where people live and people work, in tandem with digital resources, I think that’s really the power of this whole approach. .”

Craske hopes the reach of the ALACRITY Center will eventually expand beyond Los Angeles and beyond California.

The long-term goal is to create “a model that can be taken” to community colleges across the country to improve their mental health services, she said. And this model can “make the lives of those students who show such resilience and motivation to continue… easier and make their academic success more likely by addressing their mental health needs.”

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