State funds to grow healthcare services

Students can get mental health services in the Student Health Center for free.

As Orange Coast College reels after a recent tragedy, a new state-funded grant will help the Student Health Center address issues of mental health that may arise for students in the coming months.

The $230,000 grant will cover the next two years and allow Director Larry Valentine to continue to expand the staff and services provided by the health center as many students are struggling to understand the loss experienced on campus and in their personal lives.

Nowhere is this loss more keenly felt than on the baseball team and in the Athletics department following the death of OCC’s head baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife Keri and daughter Alyssa.

Jason Kehler, OCC’s athletics director, said that the team is doing as well as can be expected considering the circumstances. According to Kehler, his open-door policy for student athletes has come in handy.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in the number of baseball players coming into this office that we wouldn’t otherwise see,” Kehler said.

Valentine said that athletes can face unique challenges when it comes to dealing with mental health issues like grief, depression or anxiety because collegiate-level athletes are used to overcoming challenges through hard work and determination.

“But I think that for athletes also, it’s like ‘Of course I’m going to be able to do that [handle grief]. I’m just going to work through it and I’m going to get there,’” Valentine said.

However, grief isn’t something that can be handled with hard work alone and doesn’t operate on any set timeline, he said.

Kehler said that therapy dogs from HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response were at the first team practice following Altobelli’s death and provided stress relief and much needed moments of levity for players and the coaching staff.

Both Kehler and Valentine stressed the importance of community as the school begins to heal.

“We’ve kind of coined the term ‘Pirate Family’ and we’ve really seen how we’ve all come together,” Kehler said.  “We’re just here for each other.”

Valentine echoed Kehler’s views.

“So, for us, it’s just trying to help encourage people to seek community, to be with the people you care about… to take some active steps to self-care, whatever that means for you,” Valentine said.

According to Valentine, the $230,000 grant comes at a fortuitous time as he and his team seek to address the additional mental health challenges caused by the recent tragedy.

However, OCC’s ever expanding mental healthcare needs encompass much more beyond grieving the loss of the Altobelli family, Valentine said.

Valentine also said that this latest grant will help the health center build on the work and programs started after the school received $140,000 last year through a similar state-funded grant.

Because of the previous grant, the health center was able to go from providing 1,100 counseling sessions last spring to 1,500 this past semester. All counseling is provided at no additional cost to currently enrolled students who have paid their $21 health fee.

The health center was also able to hire additional staff, hosted several outreach events on campus including one discussing movies and mental health, and a mental health kiosk which will go in the new Student Center.

According to Valentine, the mental health kiosk will offer students a variety of assessments including depression, anxiety, substance abuse and eating disorders.

“It’s completely anonymous,” Valentine said. “It’s just to help people sort of assess for themselves, maybe to see whether they want to seek some help or not.”

Despite past outreach efforts, many students are still unaware of the health center and the services available there.

Two culinary arts majors, 23-year-old Riley Duran and 19-year-old Naomi Spargur, said they are glad that there are on-campus mental health services but wished that those services were better advertised on campus because neither were aware of the health center’s existence.

Spargur also said that she wishes there was a distraction-free space on campus to nap or relax as stress and lack of sleep are two are the biggest struggles facing college students. Additionally, Spargur said that leaving campus for these spaces isn’t always an option.

“I don’t want to lose my [parking] spot,” Spargur said.

As student housing is set to open this fall on campus, Valentine said he sees the latest grant money as being instrumental in helping the health center tackle the challenges of having students living on campus. However, Valentine said that there was no current plan in place to address these needs.

“I can’t even tell you the nights that I’m not sleeping about that,” Valentine said.

The health center is open Monday through Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Fridays by appointment and is located between Watson Hall and the Basil H. Peterson Gym.

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