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SALMAGUNDI: IVCC discussion focusing on student loneliness

Getting people to college is one challenge; keeping them there and helping them thrive is another.

Enter Tina Hardy, disability services coordinator at Illinois Valley Community College.

Her office works with current students — more than 100 per semester — as well as those considering IVCC who need classroom accommodations. That requires intake appointments with all new students, while current students have to apply for their accommodations each semester, a process that includes verifying and updating mental health conditions and medications.

But she’s also focused on the entire campus community, noting the wide variety of student backgrounds at the community college level. Hardy said attrition among higher education students can be linked to mental health issues, diagnosed or otherwise, and the problem has taken on an extra significance locally as North Central Behavioral Systems has struggled with state budget cuts.

“People can get taken out of the system if they don’t have the right support,” she said, noting many students end up being treated by general practitioners instead of mental health specialists. That’s better than nothing, but it underscores the importance of her work, collaborating with other departments to “raise awareness of mental health issues and make them less stigmatized so people can reach out for help.”

About a year and a half ago, Hardy started working with a company called Grit Digital Health, using grant funding to launch a web portal called You@IVCC aimed at helping everyone connected to the college succeed in their academic and career goals, thrive in their physical and mental health and matter by finding a purpose through community and social connections.

To enhance the online experience, Grit’s Nathaan Demers, a clinical psychologist, will present a webinar from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 24. The topic is overcoming loneliness, which Hardy said presents “an increasing challenge with associated risk factors of stress, anxiety, depression and suicide.”

Several months ago Hardy spoke with researchers from Hopelab, a social innovation group partnering with Grit to study the effect of loneliness on the mental health of college students. Hopelab found more than 60 percent of students it contacted reported being very lonely in the prior year. Even a nonresidential school like IVCC still is a setting where young people are surrounded by peers, but that often enhances such emotions when people are unable to make connections they feel should happen by default.

“We know the entire college population, and high school population for that matter … they’re all struggling with these issues,” Hardy said last week. “It’s all over the place.”

She said it can be harder to integrate with campus life at a community college and said students may have to purposefully go out of their way to join a group, club or activity. She hopes the webinar will get students and staff talking about loneliness and consider how it might factor into anxiety and depression.

“It’s just a whole different world for people this age now,” Hardy said, noting she expects webinar attendees to hear about social media and the added pressure modern students face to complete college degrees that can come with significant emotional and financial costs.

Hardy graduated from Carroll College in Waukesha, Wis., with a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and minors in English and music, and later got a master’s degree in special education from Northern Illinois University. She teaches college study skills and introduction to education and also has level one certification as a learning behavior specialist.

A mother of three, Hardy’s been at IVCC for 18 years following a variety of career experiences. She loves her role at the college, but knows her diverse background is an asset when it comes to helping today’s students map their futures.

“You just don’t know where you’ll go from here. Nobody has a straight path any more,” she said. “We have conversations like that at home a lot.”

The IVCC Diversity Committee invites the public to the webinar in Room C316. Contact Hardy at 815-224-0634 if planning to attend.

“I hope it will open conversations,” Hardy said. Seeking help for mental health issues still has a stigma, and “we’re trying really hard to break that down here” with things like Thursday’s webinar, as well as panel discussions with students and faculty talking openly about their diagnoses, coping skills — “little bits to break down those walls.”

No one should suffer in isolation — or because of it — and Hardy’s team deserves credit for taking these steps to reinforce positive messages about mental health and social consciousness.

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