Students Demand Mental Health Counselors Reflect On-Campus Diversity

LGBT and students of color want to add experienced psychological support staff at their schools.

The University of California, Los Angeles. (Photo: Geri Lavrov/Getty Images; flag illustration: SK Designs/Getty Images)

Jun 20, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Gwendolyn Wu is an editorial intern at TakePart and a junior at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

As awareness spreads and stigma declines, college students are demanding more resources and support for mental health on campus.

For LGBT students and students of color, the need is acute. Advocates are finding they have to dig deeper to satisfy a growing desire for counselors attuned to the groups’ unique concerns. With more students of color—many of them first-generation college students—attending college than ever, according to the U.S. Department of Education, campus psychologists face a greater variety of issues to handle.

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The JED Foundation, an organization that works to improve emotional health on college campuses, conducted a survey to measure the experiences of first-year white, black, and Latino students at colleges across the U.S. Asked how emotionally prepared they felt for college, 35 percent of white students responded positively, compared with 23 percent of black students (Latinos were not surveyed on this question). A survey on LGBT student mental health by Active Minds, which works to destigmatize mental disorders and illnesses, found that 50.5 percent of LGBT students—compared with 68.5 percent of their heterosexual peers—felt positive about their future.

Experiencing harassment, discouragement, and violence on the basis of identity can be contributing factors in mental health. Having counselors who share those experiences or specialize in working with those issues helps students feel more at ease, said Maggie Bertram, the assistant director of training and education at Active Minds, who identifies as lesbian.

“If I were to seek a therapist,” Bertram said, “I seek someone who is either LGBT or specializes in LGBT issues. That’s who I want to go see, because from my point of view, that person has a better sense of what it means to live as a member of this community and the sense of marginalization that happens.”

Over the past year, students across the United States have issued demands for diverse counseling staff trained to handle issues in multicultural communities.

According to the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors’ annual report on college counseling services internationally, the makeup of clinical staff is 72.2 percent white, 10.2 percent black, 7.4 percent Asian, 6.7 percent Latino, 2 percent multiracial, 1 percent other, and 0.5 percent Native American.

College students are more diverse in racial makeup. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, white students account for 55.6 percent of the population, while 15.8 percent are Latino and 13.8 percent are black. The demands for more diverse counselors, supported by antiracism activist group We The Protesters, follow violence in and against black communities and ask for support for black students on campus.

Hiring is where it gets tricky. While students want to mobilize and enact change, they usually aren’t included on hiring committees for campus administrators and staff. According to Kevin Sabo, the president of the University of California Student Association, California’s Proposition 209, which ended affirmative action in enrollment at public universities in the state, also ended the practice in hiring of faculty and staff. “We can’t say we want to hire [people of color],” he said.

Administrators concerned that psychologists will leave for better job prospects try to offer retention options, but that can be a challenge in a competitive field, Sabo said. “We have to do targeted recruitment. At more rural campuses like UC Merced, how can we make sure we don’t lose psychologists to prisons out there?” he said, referring to the extensive prison network in California’s Central Valley. “There’s more money in the [prison system], and we’re trying to do the best we can with Prop. 209.”

While activists campaign for the services needed on today’s diverse campuses, advocates try to connect students to the services that exist. Stigmatization of mental health can make it difficult for people to seek treatment. Having psychological services in heavily trafficked areas of campus could keep students from visiting counselors, Sabo said. Students who feel like their peers don’t support them need that extra support to feel they belong on campus.

“Belonging can take a lot of different forms, so when a community rallies around a person, that can be a protective factor,” Bertram said. “When a community offers access to all students to care that is of high quality, and there’s enough to go around, that’s a protector, and that’s the community rallying around that person.”

Fixing these disparities is an important component in changing campus cultures and attitudes toward mental health, Bertram said. “From the student side, if you’re an ally or a member of one of these communities, you need to be advocating on behalf of the cultural and climate needs,” she said. “The counseling intervention is really, really important, and any student on the campus should feel comfortable with something that is available and welcoming to students on any given campus.”