CSU Long Beach makes mental health a priority

California State University Long Beach with the public

The “Go Beach” sign on the CSU Long Beach campus.

On the phone, listening to his friend’s desperate cries, Presley Dallman had to make a difficult decision – call the campus police or hope everything was okay.

As a student at Cal State University Long Beach studying health sciences and public health education, Dallman knew what she had to do.

“My best friend was in this crisis situation and they were going to get hurt,” said Dahlman, who graduated from the university this spring. “The only thing I could do was call the police, which was the last thing I wanted to do. I wanted, you know, I wanted to be there. I wanted to be greeted by someone who really cared about them and who could actually talk to them, but there was no option for that. I should have called the police.”

The friend later said the police presence “made things worse” and led to a stay in the hospital’s psychiatric ward.

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

A few years ago, Beth Lessen, vice president of student affairs at the Long Beach campus, set out to create a comprehensive campus-wide mental health strategic plan. She began by searching across the country similar plans at other universities.

Lesen said he couldn’t find any campus with a specific mental health strategic plan, so Long Beach, a campus of about 40,000 students, wrote its own. It is it is believed to be the first such plan in the country. Long Beach’s plan includes 60 action items that focus on minimizing or eliminating health equity disparities, using technology to reach students, and promoting strategies that consider the diversity and cultural backgrounds of students. Although some action items began last spring, with others set to begin this upcoming school year, each item will not be fully implemented until 2025.

One of these action items, which started this year, includes updating the response that students receive when police are notified that they are experiencing a mental health crisis or emergency. The Mobile Crisis Unit is an initiative and two psychiatrists work in it professionals such as psychologists, at the University Police Department to respond to psychiatric emergencies on campus. Lessen said Long Beach will 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 aimed at expanding student mental health care.

Fidel Vasquez, a junior and member of Long Beach’s Associated Students, which is the student government, said students have wanted and wanted these types of changes in mental health support for some time.

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

“We don’t have a shared cost, and the mobile crisis unit is just one piece,” Lessen said. “With over 60 initiatives, we expect this to be a significant investment that will be funded in a variety of ways, including but not limited to grants, private donations and university allocations.” We believe this is critical to the well-being and success of our students and is 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 figure out how to fund each piece,” she said. “There are a few initiatives that I don’t yet know where I’m going to get funding from, but it’s my job to find it.”

In the 2021 National College Health Assessment, 86% of Long Beach students reported moderate or severe stress in the past 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 because of someone’s race or ethnicity.

In addition to deploying mental health professionals as part of the police response, Long Beach’s mental health efforts include a peer-to-peer texting program that recruits students to reach out to others during times of high stress like the finals. Lesen said student mentors are trained to have conversations on their own and know when to seek professional help or supervision.

She said a pilot version of the program this spring involved reaching 1,400 students and had an almost 50 percent response rate.

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

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

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

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

As for Dahlman’s girlfriend, she said they are doing much better.

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

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