Nearly a year ago this month, I wrote about representation and racism in college mental health. And here we are as a nation grappling with the realities of institutional (aka systemic) racism once again. Yet the stakes have always been high when we remember the countless deaths of BIPOC in the last decade let alone for generations. Yet the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that led to the murder of George Floyd has brought forth a tsunami that has been unexpected and unprecedented. Still, the reality of racial violence was and is not a surprise for BIPOC.
However, as written by many others before me, racial justice will only come about with the giving up of power, privilege and position, advocating for those who are underrepresented and often marginalized, and redirecting resources particularly financial as well as social capital for institutional change. What does this look like within my context of college mental health?
When I reflect further upon my graduate studies in clinical mental health counseling, my internship experiences, and these past three years as a professional counselor in higher education, I recognize time and again how racism both interpersonal and institutional played out in these contexts. As such, here are some observations and questions with the full recognition that they are not new:
Counseling programs are primarily White in its faculty, administrators and students. There was also a resistance to the cultural competence courses by White students, which pressured students of color to respond or silenced into not responding.
What would it mean for counseling programs to include anti-racism as part of its application process and when interviewing potential candidates? What would it mean to embed an anti-racism framework (along with the expected cultural competence per counseling code of ethics and for many, CACREP accreditation) into course syllabi, and research and teaching, and internship sites?
Counseling internship supervisors are mostly White as they are reflecting the counseling center’s demographics. At the same time, more interns were BIPOC and were expected to be supervised by White supervisors who were not necessarily culturally attuned or would commit microaggressions in regularity.
What would it mean for interns to be able to report their experiences of racial bias and prejudice without repercussion? What would it mean for internship supervisors to inquire about interns’ experiences of racism with clients? What would it mean for counseling programs to include anti-racism expectations and accountability of internship sites and supervisors?
College counseling centers are mostly led by White directors/supervisors and hire interns and counselors, and administrative staff who are majority White.
What would it mean for programs and centers to recruit and hire with anti-racism in mind rather than only diversity and inclusion? What would it mean to consistently provide anti-racism training to staff? What would it mean to review and promote staff based on anti-racist knowledge, skills and practice? What would it mean to take these actions regardless of the institution’s ability to do so? That is, what would it mean to initiate these actions even without institutional support?
Few students of color and international students attend counseling. Too often this phenomenon has been attributed to students’ cultural upbringing or stigma about mental health. Although this is true, it is also true that counseling centers often do not have formal relationships with diversity offices nor with student identity-based organizations for collaboration and communication. It is often the work of counselors of color who request permission then seek out opportunities to connect with these offices and student organizations. Also, students of color and international students have reported insensitivity and/or ignorance from counselors resulting in students not returning to counseling.
What would it mean for directors/supervisors to formalize these relationships rather than staff? What would it mean for White counselors and counselors of color to be reaching out? What would it mean to create an anti-racist process to meet the needs of students of color and international students? That is, a willingness to reconsider the Western view and practice of counseling to increase access? Brown University (prior to COVID-19) has reworked its process and driven by anti-racist and multicultural counseling principles and standards. What would it mean to continue offering tele-health counseling after COVID-19 to increase access for underrepresented students?
Professional organizations for college mental health are often led by mostly White executive boards and committee chairs. Workshop topics continue to not reflect a more racially and ethnically diverse context. Workshops and speakers are often offered by White presenters.
What would it mean for White leaders to limit their representation and time in order to raise up BIPOC leaders for their organization? That is, Whiteness is often perpetuated when the same people run for different positions and thereby extending their time on an executive board or committee for years. How can this be limited/changed?
This is only a start and I presume that there are many other ways to address institutional racism in college mental health. My hope and expectation that counseling programs and college and university counseling centers will back up their words of BLM solidarity with action that will result in institutional change.
Elena Yee is a clinical counselor in Counseling Services at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. She received her MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Rhode Island College in Providence, Rhode Island. She is interested in increasing students' resilience and improved mental health through acceptance of self and others, effectively assessing for suicidality, increasing diverse representation in college counseling centers, and advocating for the needs of those most vulnerable in our society. You can learn more about Elena at www.linkedin.com/in/elenatyee