CSU Long Beach makes mental health priority

Cal State University Long Beach Public Affairs

The “Go Beach” sign at CSU Long Beach campus.

On the phone, listening to her friend’s cries of despair, Presley Dalman had to make a difficult decision – call campus police or hope everything would be fine. 

As a California State University, Long Beach student studying health science and community health education, Dalman knew what she had to do. 

“My best friend was in this crisis situation, and they were going to hurt themselves,” said Dalman, who graduated from the university this spring. “The only thing I could do was call the police, which is the last thing I wanted to do. I wanted to, you know, I wanted to be there. I wanted them to be met by someone who really cares about them and who could really talk to them, but there was no option for that. I had to call the police.” 

The friend later said the police presence “made things worse” and resulted in a stay in the hospital psychiatric unit.

Calling the police for help is the only option for students who are trying to help a friend threatening harm to themselves or others. CSU Long Beach wants to change that.

A couple of years ago, Beth Lesen, the vice president of student affairs on the Long Beach campus, set out to create a comprehensive campuswide mental health strategic plan. She started by looking nationwide for such plans at other universities. 

Lesen said she couldn’t find a single campus with a specific mental health strategic plan, so Long Beach, a campus of about 40,000 students, wrote its own. It’s believed to be the first such plan in the country. The Long Beach plan includes 60 action items that focus on minimizing or eliminating disparities in health equity, using technology to reach students and promoting strategies considering students’ diversity and cultural backgrounds. Although some action items started this past spring, with more to begin this upcoming academic year, each item won’t be completely enacted until 2025.

One of those action items, which launches this year, includes revamping the response students receive when police are notified they’re experiencing a mental health crisis or emergency. The initiative is the Mobile Crisis Unit and employs two mental health professionals, like psychologists, in the University Police Department to respond to psychiatric emergencies on campus. Lesen said that Long Beach would be the first Cal State in the 23 campus system to offer this response to psychiatric emergencies.

The initiative comes at a time when government and private funding is focused on expanding mental health care for college students.

Fidel Vasquez, a rising junior and member of Long Beach’s Associated Students, which is the student government, said students had been asking for and wanting these types of changes to mental health support for a while. 

“Everyone is really enthusiastic about this change in approach, especially our communities of color,” Lesen said, adding that the campus received a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to employ the mental health professionals in the campus Police Department. Students of color have especially advocated for fewer police officers responding to these types of emergencies, she added.

“We don’t have one overall price tag and the Mobile Crisis Unit is only one piece,” said Lesen.  “With over 60 initiatives, we expect it to be a sizable investment that will be funded in variety of ways, including but not limited to grants, private donation and university allocations. We believe this to be critical to the wellbeing and success of our students and well worth prioritizing, especially now.”

Lesen some of the funding is still unclear but the university remains committed to the plan, “It’s about making a commitment to figuring out how to fund each piece,” she said. “There are a couple of initiatives where I still don’t know where I’m going to get the funding, but it’s my job to find it.”

On the 2021 National College Health Assessment, 86% of Long Beach students reported moderate or high stress in the last 12 months. Nearly 30% of students reported the death of a family member, loved one, or friend due to Covid-19, and 57% reported witnessing online or in-person discrimination or hostility due to someone’s race or ethnicity. 

Besides deploying mental health professionals as part of a police response, Long Beach’s mental health actions include a text messaging peer-to-peer program that employs students to contact others during high-stress times like finals. Lesen said the student mentors receive training to handle the conversations independently and know when to reach out for professional help or supervision. 

She said a pilot version of the program this spring involved reaching out to 1,400 students and had a nearly 50% response rate. 

“If you send an email, you’re lucky if 30% of students open it, but about 50% of these students actually replied,” Lesen said, adding that some simply said they were fine. In contrast, others expressed a family member had died, or they were struggling with classes and anxiety. A spring 2022 campus survey of nearly 4,000 Long Beach students found that 2,069 of them take less than 15 credits a semester for their “own well-being.” 

“The numbers show you how much mental health does affect academics and also just the quality of life for students,” Dalman said. 

Some students simply need someone to listen to them, while others require more help, but too often they don’t know the resources available to them and don’t seek them out on their own, Lesen said. 

The peer texting initiative will expand to about 11,000 incoming students this fall. Lesen said the campus plans to expand the program to all students by spring 2023. 

As for Dalman’s friend, she said they’re doing much better. 

“They’re in therapy, which was really helpful for them,” she said. “We all do better when we’re surrounded by people who really care about our growth.” 

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CSU Long Beach makes mental health priority

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