Getting into college is undoubtedly one of the most exciting events in any student’s life.

It can also be one of the most stressful, especially once students start considering factors like living away from home for the first time, adjusting to a new scholastic environment, or figuring out how to pay for their education.

“There are always going to be positive and negative aspects of going to college,” said Denise Bjurholm, Executive Director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Pinellas. “It’s all going to depend on how they handle that change.”

Bjurholm and NAMI Pinellas recently partnered with their local college access network to help students cope with the big changes involved with pursuing education after high school.

In February, LEAP Tampa Bay College Access Network launched, a website that highlights and offers direct access to mental health resources available at the University of South Florida, Hillsborough Community College, St. Petersburg College, and Pasco-Hernando State College.

Chuck Tiernan, LEAP’s senior director, said the website was created as a result of conversations with community partners.

“As we spoke to our partners at the schools, they felt like a good number of students use our (mental health) services, but a lot more could benefit,” Tiernan said. “Was there a way that we could remove the stigma that goes with needing the kind of support that, honestly, all of us as human beings probably need from time to time?”

According to Bjurholm, the first step to reducing stigma is to educate yourself.

“Part of the challenge is, ‘How are you going to educate hundreds or thousands of students on college campuses?’ Bjurholm said “We were excited about adding that digital component because, no matter where you are, you can log on and access a plethora of resources with your phone, tablet, or laptop.”

The Humana Foundation, another LEAP Tampa Bay partner, contributed $50,000 to help expand and promote the website. Tiernan said the YourCollegeCares website aligns with Humana’s population health goal, which includes mental well-being.

In addition to links to existing mental health resources available at the current partner schools, YourCollegeCares will also feature wellness articles written by school counselors and fellow students. Bjurholm said there is great value in students hearing from their peers.

“You want to be relatable when you’re talking to other people struggling with mental health and show them that they’re not alone,” Bjurholm said.

“We’re not re-inventing the wheel, we just want to make sure this information gets out,” Tiernan added.

As they look ahead to a new school year in the fall, Tiernan said LEAP is already inviting other postsecondary institutions in the Tampa Bay area to get involved with the website. He also hopes to have LEAP’s high school partners share information about the website with their seniors during the new school year.

“We want to make sure that the resources that are available are being utilized,” Tiernan said. “More importantly, we want the students to know that we care about them as people and we want to help.”


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