Local college students just a click away from mental health care

For almost all young adults entering or returning college, there are lots of typical struggles to navigate and accomplish: choosing classes, navigating campus, making new friends and finding activities to do, for example.

And with the onset of the COVID pandemic and all the adjustments to getting an education it brought on, those usual struggles have been magnified with a whole new set of rules and precautions.

But over the past month and a half, the World Wide Web is being used to make college life in and out of the classroom a bit simpler and easier through clicks of a mouse. In February, the new “Your College Cares (YCC)” website was launched to help provide mental health resources for college students in the Tampa Bay Area.

The Your College Cares website was created to help destigmatize mental health support and increase access to existing resources on area college campuses and in the surrounding communities.

Your College Cares (YCC) was created and is run by LEAP Tampa Bay College Access Network. LEAP Tampa Bay is a network of over 50 community partners working to connect residents to education and training after high school. 

From her Tampa office, Dominique Gardner, LEAP Tampa Bay program manager, says the LEAP staff of three and community partners spent about a year getting the YCC website developed, operational and online. With the onset of COVID in Florida in 2020, partners at colleges and mental health counseling offices began to see increases in mental health concerns by college students, who weren’t utilizing campus resources.

Through the Humana Foundation via the “Nonprofit Needs List” of the Community Foundation Tampa Bay -- a nonprofit organization that connects people and resources for charitable giving -- a $50,000 grant for the LEAP and its Your College Cares website creation was obtained. The Community Foundation is LEAD’s fiscal agent.

“We were able to get money to basically address the mental health needs of our community based on conversations we were having with all our higher education partners,” says Gardner, who has been with LEAP since July 2021.

Providing support and assistance for LEAP’s YCC website are support and administrative staff and instructors from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Pinellas, the University of South Florida, Hillsborough Community College, St. Petersburg College, Pasco-Hernando State College and with LEAP staff.

After the first 30 days of its launching, the YCC website had a total of 1,781 visits, according to B2 Communications, the St. Petersburg public relations firm who helped launch the site. 

Gardner attributes much of the website’s immediate popularity to its ease of use. 

“It’s a very, very basic website and easy to access. The goal was to have resources both through the colleges and the community in one or two clicks away,” she says.

Among the YCC pages are community resource links for crisis, emergencies and short- and long-term care for mental issues. There are also articles relating to accessing mental health counselors and guides for “wrap-around services,” pertaining to how mental health is affected by various “insecurities,” such as food and housing shortages.

The majority of content are wellness articles based on input from about 60 LEAP community partner experts in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, as well as advice provided by professionals in higher education and student support offices. 

LEAP Tampa Bay is an all-volunteer, non-profit organization made up of what Gardner says are “a bunch of people from the community … who just want to help.”

“This is just one way to address the issues and we have lots of really passionate volunteers who want to help with the process,” says Gardner, who lives in Brandon. “The (YCC) Content Group meets every couple of months to make sure that everything is relevant and to see if numbers have changed and monthly to add new wellness articles.” 

The advent and maturation of the YCC website can partially be traced to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Gardner adds. She says LEAP campus partners brought college students to the table who requested extra support during COVID. For students, YCC is designed to help “normalize” requesting help, the thought processes regarding struggle and that those are “OK.” 

Additionally, YCC can benefit students whether they’re just entering college for the first time or returning to campus for a new year. The website stresses to users that it is natural and normal to have a range of feelings and emotions, especially now while society is navigating through the pandemic.

Some of the ways for students to alleviate anxiety and stress, according to the YCC website, are to: get enough sleep; exercise; eat a balanced diet; avoid substance abuse; stay hydrated; stay organized; seek out campus resources; and find time for self-care.

In a written statement, Denise Whitfield, executive director at NAMI Pinellas, says YCC notes mental health resources college partners make available for students and why. “They want to support their students’ success managing the stressors of education and life in general. We want students to know that it’s OK to not be OK, and help is close at hand.”

For Gardner and the LEAP Tampa Bay volunteers and partners, those points may seem obvious on the surface, but during times of stress and challenges, they can easily be overlooked or ignored. Additionally, the YCC can make it easier for friends and families to access resources to help support a loved one in college. 

“At times, it can be really hard to navigate (the college experience), especially if you’re in a mental health crisis. If it’s easier to do one click to get to a counseling office appointment page, that’s what we hope students can get from that,” she says. “We want students to see they’re not alone; they’re just a few clicks from reaching people who are here to help on the campus and in the community.”
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Read more articles by Paul Catala.

Paul Catala is a freelance writer whose work has been published across Florida, the U.S., and internationally. He has more than 30 years of experience working at the Charlotte Sun-Herald, the Tampa Tribune, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Provo (Utah) Daily-Herald, The (Lakeland) Ledger, and the Associated Press. He has a degree in broadcast telecommunication from the University of Florida and did post-graduate study in journalism at the University of South Carolina. Now living in Lakeland, Paul is an accomplished musician, playing keyboard and piano both solo and with bands around the Tampa Bay Area.