College can be a uniquely challenging and stressful experience for minority students, but the past two years have been unlike any before. The twin challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and America’s racial reckoning have put the mental health of minority students under severe strain. On Tuesday, Diverse hosted a panel of experts for a virtual discussion of how this issue can be addressed.
Crucial to minority student mental health is overcoming cultural stigmas that may prevent them from seeking help. Hiring and retaining diverse mental health staff is critical, according to Dr. Nahed Barakat, interim training director and coordinator of diversity and inclusion activities at the University of Denver’s Health & Counseling Center. But having a diverse staff isn’t only about representation—it’s about cultural competence.
“The field of psychology was based on a very white-centric view of the world,” said Barakat. “It’s very individualistic, person-centered, rather than community-centered or system-centered.”
In an interview with Diverse after the panel, she gave the example of a Hispanic student seeking treatment for a problem with his or her family.
“The approach is, well, you need to meet your own needs, you need to focus on yourself. And that’s really just not going to work because that’s not what the culture is," she said. "[Psychology] has pathologized thinking about your family’s needs when it’s not a pathology.”
Paying close attention to student needs is also important to getting them to engage with mental health services, according to Amy Gatto, senior manager of Higher Ed and Evaluation at Active Minds, a non-profit promoting mental health for young adults.
“Are we asking our students what they need instead of just assuming?” she said. “Are students not engaging in self-care because sometimes that can come from a place of privilege? What does it look like on a campus if you’re struggling with your basic needs? What supports do campuses have, whether it’s housing or food insecurity? Then they can start addressing some of their mental health concerns.”
Alternative kinds of models can also reach minority students who might be reluctant to dive into traditional counseling. Barakat discussed the University of Denver’s Student Outreach and Support (SOS) office, to which anybody on campus can submit a referral describing a student who may be struggling. The office then reaches out to the student to develop a support plan.
Digital modes of support can also be helpful, according to Dr. Nathaan Demers, vice president of clinical programs and strategic partnerships at YOU at College, which makes an online student well-being platform.
“We actually have higher proportions of minority students using our tool than are represented on their respective campuses,” he said. “If I can check it out, confidentially, anonymously in my dorm room, I’m much more likely to do that. And if I’m a minority going to a commuter campus and I have another job or I’m taking care of older parents, it’s really hard for me to get to the counselling center. If I can all of a sudden start exploring resources, learning coping skills when I'm taking the bus or commuting, that's a huge win.”
Moving beyond the barriers of the counseling office is also important.
“It doesn’t have to be that official or serious sometimes,” said Barakat. “There could be, say, a Black student association meeting, and I’ll just show up to the meeting and just hang out with the students. I don’t have to talk about mental health issues necessarily, but I think it’s really important to establish that connection in case a student one day is like, ‘I really feel like I need to talk to somebody.’
The panelists agreed that everyone on campus should be trained in mental health issues, but especially campus police who may be the first to respond to students having mental health crises. Sometimes, pointed out Barakat, her job is to prevent police from becoming involved. She described one instance in which an ambulance was called for a student having a mental issue, but police arrived instead.
“I’m sorry, I’m not sending my student with you,” she said. “Especially if it’s a student of color. [I have to] be mindful of the mental health impact that that is going to have.”
According to Gatto, some schools are using trained behavioral interventionists to respond to students in crisis instead of law enforcement.
“One of the nice things is that there’s opportunities on campuses to try some of these innovative strategies,” she said. “We might struggle elevating that into communities, but on a college campus, it’s very realistic to have someone go with the law enforcement officer.”
Of course, all of these ways of improving campus mental health care cost money. But Gatto says that, for institutions, it makes financial sense.
“If you look at the return on investment, there are huge dividends that come from investing in student mental health. We’re seeing increased retention and persistence, improved student success outcomes.”
Moreover, the panelists agreed, it’s a responsibility.
“When we look at the mission of institutions, we’re talking about teaching people how to think, how to interact, how to support others, and maintaining mental health and well-being is essential in that mission,” said Demers. “I don’t think it’s something that can be pulled apart from the core role of higher education.”