The Significance of Culturally Responsive Approaches to Mental Health in Higher Education

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By Caitlyn Joseph, VCU MSW Intern Class of 2024

Why is everyone talking about mental health all of the time?
Mental health struggles are not exclusive to any social identity, but can affect different people in unique ways because of their many diverse identities and backgrounds that make up who they are. While the complexities and nuances of mental health challenges can be specific to an individual, the overall experience is extremely common in our fast-paced, ever-changing world. With constant pressures and stressors, mental health issues are on the rise, both due to the increased awareness and conversations around mental health and, in part, due to the high levels of emotional and mental exhaustion that people are facing in their daily lives and in experiencing the many global events that simultaneously occupy our brains.

How can mental health challenges be different among people but still be a common experience?
The human experience is unique to every individual, and that comes with both positive aspects and negative difficulties, such as mental health challenges, that shape how we move through our daily lives, as well as within society. Our combination of identities opens up doors for both opportunities and obstacles associated with each, and those opportunities and obstacles also can affect our mental health.

What types of challenges do students in higher education face?
Students in higher education tend to balance many roles and responsibilities that can sometimes be overwhelming and difficult to maintain. On many campuses, students are encouraged to become their “best selves” which is advertised through pursuing rigorous courses, becoming an active member of many on-campus organizations, and also participating in community service and social activities. The magnitude of commitment that is required to upkeep this type of lifestyle can be both rewarding and draining, as it often requires students to make personal sacrifices to remain fully engaged in their involvements. Alongside a bustling campus life, students are also navigating new experiences away from home, as well as managing the many emotions and mental loads that are associated with change, school, self-exploration, and life.
While the transition from high school to college can be an exciting one, the adjustment can also spark sadness, worry, and fear as students traverse a new territory of life. On average, these factors lead to higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation for at least half of undergraduate students across universities. Today, the majority of college students meet at least one of the criteria to be diagnosed with a mental health issue. Persistent and growing emotional stress is increasingly leading to students considering withdrawal and breaks from their educational journey. In recent years, common mental health trends have only increased in their presence and impact on campuses across the country.

Why would it be different for students with marginalized identities?
The “typical” college challenges can affect students with marginalized identities on a more complex level, when social dynamics, forms of oppression, and barriers to success are also added in the mix. Mental health challenges can be exacerbated for women and gender diverse individuals, people of color and minoritized cultural and ethnic backgrounds, people with disabilities, and other marginalized social identities. A lack of access or increased barriers to resources and services, hesitation due to historical and systematic oppression, and the negative stereotypes and stigmas around seeking support for mental health are all factors and experiences that impact underrepresented students in higher education. There are a plethora of reasons as to why students of all identities do not seek help for mental health concerns, but one of the main reasons is the volume of need for mental health services outnumbering the staff and resources university counseling centers are able to provide.

University counseling centers often lack the budget and staff needed to increase and improve current services, as well as continuously develop innovative and relevant resources to address the growing need for mental health awareness and support on campuses. This issue of underfunding and understaffing is especially relevant to students with marginalized identities, because this often means that the staff in counseling services are not representative of the diverse identities within the student body and the programs are not culturally congruent with the issues and perspectives of the students, as well. The lack of culturally responsive services and representative staff makeup can affect how diverse populations of students choose to interact with the university’s counseling services based on their subsequent feelings of safety, security, and relatability with the limited opportunities presented to them.

So, if the current level of mental health services at many colleges and universities are not meeting the needs of different types of students, what types of changes would be needed to provide more culturally responsive services and representative counseling staff?
There are many ways a college or university can address the expansion of mental health services on their campuses! One of the best ways to kick off the brainstorming process is to include the voices of the individuals the improvements are meant to serve: the students. Hosting on-campus forums, focus groups, town hall meetings, and anonymous surveys all provide students with different opportunities to incorporate their lived experiences, perspectives, and knowledge into the creation of services and resources that will directly benefit them. Mental health is a dynamic and layered topic that can be approached from a multitude of angles and avenues. In terms of creating an accessible and inclusive environment where students feel safe and encouraged to receive mental health support, universities should utilize the ideas that come from students and incorporate student identities, backgrounds, and experiences into their training and hiring processes for counseling services. The act of intentionally integrating community feedback and voices into the work of the university is cultural responsiveness. Culturally responsive processes allow for universities to ensure that their programs are not only addressing the issues and concerns that students are facing, but are doing it in ways that will make students feel seen, heard, and valued.

What can culturally responsive mental health services and resources look like?
Culturally responsive approaches to mental health can be envisioned in countless ways. Whether it be implementing a diversity, inclusion, and equity role and training series in counseling departments or developing student-inspired programs and events to raise awareness about the importance of mental health, the solutions that come from student-based perspectives will always be the most effective approaches. For example, hosting a conversation series where mental health professionals and advocates of different backgrounds and identities can create opportunities for marginalized students to see their identities represented within the field of mental health. This could erase social stigmas or ease feelings of discomfort and hesitation when it comes to seeking support. The possibilities for culturally responsive mental health resources are endless and college campuses have rich student communities of diverse identities and experiences that can inspire innovative and creative approaches to making mental health a priority within university culture and in the greater field of higher education!

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