HCC partners with nonprofit to bolster mental health resources 

For the Gazette
Published: 9/12/2021 9:01:34 PM

HOLYOKE – A new partnership between Holyoke Community College and the Center for Human Development, a Springfield-based nonprofit, brings two full-time counselors to campus to support students’ mental health.

The counselors will provide mental health advising as well as support to students going through problems including substance abuse, addiction recovery, and food insecurity. Although these are not known to be sizable issues on campus, Renee Tastad, assistant vice principal of student affairs and dean of enrollment management, said the idea is to “make sure we’re removing barriers to success” by giving students access to these resources if needed.

The partnership aims to “help students develop the life skills necessary to decrease the negative consequences of mental health distress, leading to increased perseverance and degree attainment,” according to Tastad.

Elizabeth Barron, CHD’s Adult Community Clinical Services clinic director, said “mental health supports, I believe, are integral for students to complete their education because as students they are voluntarily taking on more stress in service of their future success.” To manage this stress, these two counselors were hired this summer in a partnership with Holyoke Community College that began on July 1.

One is Vanessa Vargas, a clinician that will deliver face-to-face care to on-campus students, work with staff to create systems of care and connect students to therapy as needed. She will also handle deescalation of situations involving students at risk of suicide.

The other is Tara Woods, a clinical coordinator, who will train faculty and staff on Emotional CPR, substance misuse, and risk-seeking behaviors. She also will hold positions on various campus committees and serve as an expert on mental health resources in the community.

Tastad said Holyoke Community College is offering various “extended orientation” sessions this semester, hosted by Woods, Vargas, and school staff. These seminars will address topics including time management, advocating for oneself, and establishing a growth mindset.

“We were exploring this possibility before COVID hit,” Tastad said, labeling the pandemic as the tipping point in the decision to hire counselors.

Also, the results of the Healthy Minds Survey, conducted last November on 611 Holyoke Community College students, painted students’ need for help in a new light. Of those surveyed, 41% reported feeling anxious, 47% reported feeling depressed, 67% reported feeling isolated, and 86% reported emotional or mental difficulty that inhibited learning.

The new partnership between CHD and Holyoke Community College was inspired by the college’s initiative with JED Campus, a nationwide initiative to improve students’ mental health, in October 2020. Working with CHD is a way to get a more “personalized approach and in-depth integration with campus,” Tastad said.

Although no other local community colleges have reached out to CHD about hiring clinicians, Tastad advocated the idea.

“Whoever you bring on needs to be connected to your community,” she said as counselors will know the campus and “peak stress times,” such as midterms or finals, when students are experiencing more pressure than usual.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship between the student, the community, and the supporters,” said Barron, of CHD. While students are “committed to improving their own lives and subsequently the communities around them, there seems to me like a duty that the communities would provide support for them.”


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