“You Know What I Mean?”: Universities Need Better Representation Of Counselors And Therapists Of Color
Three years ago — as a Chicago city girl, first-generation college student, and Mexican American — I moved to Ohio to pursue my undergraduate education at Denison University. I was told that my first year of college would be difficult, so I prepared myself to face academic challenges; however, I never anticipated it to be mentally and emotionally challenging too.
Within a few months, I grieved the deaths of dear family and friends, faced extreme homesickness, lost relationships, struggled academically, and felt like I didn’t belong at my PWI (predominately white institution). At the time, the only person I felt comfortable talking to was the Dean of Multicultural Student Affairs. He is also a person of color from Chicago, and his empathy towards my struggles and his open-door policy made it easy for me to reach out and talk to him.
After countless appointments and crying sessions in his office, he recommended that I go to the school’s counseling center. Prior to his suggestion, I didn’t know that the school even had a counseling center. I initially hesitated to visit a counselor due to fear and the stigma associated with having poor mental health, but I knew I should take his advice. My friends recommended that I schedule a session with the only Black therapist because many felt that she was the only one who understood the experiences of students of color on campus. However, she didn’t have any availability until the following month so I scheduled a session with another counselor. I was optimistic and relieved to be able to talk to someone, but it turned out to be one of my most negative experiences. When I explained a tradition or major part of my upbringing, the counselor – who was white – looked at me with confusion and questioned my family’s culture. I left my appointment feeling confused and emotionally drained. That 30-minute session prompted me to refuse counseling moving forward, and I did not seek the university’s services again until my junior year.
This experience made me realize how important it is for students of color to have access to counselors of color. Unfortunately, the majority of counselors and psychiatrists on college campuses are white; Only 7% of counselors identify as Hispanic, 8% as Asian, and 10% as Black. Meanwhile, students of color disproportionately face emotional and mental stressors that stem from personal and/or systemic issues such as balancing school and familial issues, financial stress, or feeling a lack of representation in classrooms. At the same time, it can also be difficult for students of color to seek mental health services as conversations of mental health are often stigmatized and taboo in our communities. According to research and my own personal experience, people often perceive anxiety, depression, or stress as a sign of weakness and anyone can overcome it with solely “perseverance” and “resilience.” This makes it difficult for students of color to seek mental health services which can impact their ability to complete college.
Not only is it vital for institutions to equip students with adequate mental health tools and resources, institutions need to hire more counselors and therapists of color as well. Institutions can create committees of faculty, staff, and students of color to help recruit counselors to their campuses. And when hiring, it’s important to recruit counselors who specialize in trauma, experiences of being people of color in America, and/or family issues. The better representation of counselors with these identities creates a space where students feel seen, heard, and understood. Allowing students to feel comfortable in counseling spaces increases emotional wellness and academic performance.
Additionally, institutions should actively find ways to promote and destigmatize seeking mental health services. Institutions can begin to do this by encouraging professors to promote counseling services throughout the academic year, whether in their syllabi or class discussions. Schools could also hire students of color to work in their health centers and advertise mental health services at campus events and programs. Finally, I recommend that colleges and universities enhance the accessibility of their services. This includes offering free year-round counseling and continuing to offer virtual counseling as an option even after everyone returns to campus.
Reflecting on my own experience, these recommendations could have had a big impact for me, and I know it would for other students of color like me. By investing in their students’ mental health, colleges and universities will be helping them succeed in and out the classroom as well as for their future as alumni.