A summary of roundtable discussions on diversity in college mental health

“You have to take action and tell the story about what and why you are changing”: Learnings from a Mental Health Roundtable Discussion with Diversity and Cultural Center Directors

It’s widely acknowledged that minoritized students seek support within the communities that feel safe to them. Craving a reflection of their own lived experiences, students often look for support from the staff at campus diversity and cultural centers (e.g., LGBTQIA+ centers, African American Cultural Centers, Latinx Cultural Centers).  While some cultural center staff may possess counseling training, many  are cornered into a position of becoming adjunct therapists without the adequate training, resources, or compensation to address students’ mental health needs. This dynamic highlights another instance in which a lack of institutional investment and commitment to holistic well-being disproportionately impacts BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ students, faculty and staff. 

This month, I had the unique opportunity to host two roundtable discussions with various higher education stakeholders from diversity and cultural centers nationwide. The roundtables aimed to carve out space for necessary discussions about not only the intersection of equity, identity, and mental health, but also opportunities to better support the well-being of historically-marginalized students on campus. Often, the conversation surrounding mental health services on campus, and the burden of providing them, gets limited to counseling centers. With the abundance of on-the-ground expertise within their communities, we hoped to elevate these voices to better understand how campus mental health services can better meet the needs of all students, not just those already accessing care. 

Key learnings from the diversity roundtable discussions:

  • Minoritized students may have a (warranted) lack of trust in the institution’s intent and ability to support them, and may believe that the traditional mental health services at their campus counseling center will not be helpful. 
  • Students who do overcome cultural barriers to help-seeking are often met with waitlists for limited, short-term care during working hours provided by therapists who do not reflect their identities. In the words of one of our participants, “students don’t want to give the racism 101 or sexism 101 talk. By the time they’re at session 4-5, their time is up and they’re outsourced to a therapist in the community.” 
  • Negative perceptions of the counseling center become strengthened by confirmation bias, which may dissuade other first generation, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ students from seeking counseling services. 
  • When minoritized students don’t utilize the counseling center, they may turn to cultural centers for support (or not seek support at all). 
  • If students turn to cultural centers, the already overburdened and under-resourced staff are put in the uncomfortable position of doubling as therapist, care navigator, case manager, and mental health educator.  
  • Cultural centers are rooted in community and trust. When referring students to services outside of campus, staff want to feel confident that their referral will provide a supportive environment. 
  • The current model of mental health pathologizes natural, communal experiences, such as racial trauma and grief. One of our participants noted, “students have reservations using certain resources due to a fear of being pathologized.”  

Opportunities for Change: 

  • Ask minoritized students what they need— listen to them and implement real sustainable policy changes with wide-reaching impact. 
  • Hire therapists to represent a wider range and intersection of identities and lived experiences. If recruitment is a challenge, explore why it’s so difficult to recruit and retain therapists of color— is compensation high enough? Is the culture inclusive? Also, consider alternative options such as telehealth partners to increase access to culturally-responsive care during extended hours.  
  • Anticipate the impact of current events instead of waiting for students to demand timely responses and increased resources. 
  • Acknowledge the ongoing impact of racism/racialized trauma, homophobia, transphobia, and indigenous erasure. Carve out spaces for students to address the impact on their mental health and well-being. * Words matter: call things what they are (e.g. white supremacy, communal trauma). 
  • Expand the paradigm of mental health care to be more inclusive of community-based practices and approaches. 
  • Extend resources to families and/or incorporate families into care
  • Create a deliberate counter-narrative to address the negative perceptions of the counseling center on campus. The counter narrative may be action (hiring more diverse therapists) or knowledge-building (“we do have therapists of color on campus and you can get an appointment within 2 weeks”). In the words of one of our roundtable participants, “You have to take action and tell the story about what and why you are changing.”

These two roundtable discussions provided actionable insight on the experiences of Diversity and Cultural Center staff and their observations of the mental health care needs of minoritized students. We view this conversation as the first of many as institutions work toward systemic change, and are confident in our own ability as a company to continue prioritizing the voices of historically marginalized students, faculty and staff.