Support Minority Students: Diversify Counseling and Mental Health Services

Given recent racially-charged events at Yale, Mizzou, and Harvard Law School, the imperative for racial and ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, gender, and sexual diversity among Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services clinicians comes at an urgent time. Marginalized students (including students of color and minority religions, first-generation students, BGLTQ+ students, undocumented students, and students from low-income backgrounds) on college campuses bear the burden of institutional racism and social oppression on top of academic and extracurricular loads—even at Harvard. Microaggressions (like the recurring doubt of whether students of color, too, are Harvard students), macroaggressions (like the creation of the White Student Union and taping over black faculty portraits at Harvard Law School), and lack of culturally-specific academic and social resources remind us that Harvard is not exempt from social injustices. This reality takes its toll on the mental health of many students and we can no longer wait for change at Harvard’s pace. We need diverse CAMHS clinicians who understand our unique frustrations and concerns now.

Across the nation, marginalized communities are disproportionately vulnerable to mental health conditions but lack access to adequate resources for economic and cultural reasons. Black Americans, for example, are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress, but are about half as likely to receive mental health services than their white counterparts. Similar trends exist among Asian-American, Latinx, Native American and BGLTQ+ communities. Many of these individuals cannot attain health insurance for economic, social, or legal reasons. In addition, stigma, shame, and prejudice surrounding mental health conditions are huge barriers for members of marginalized communities. While access to health insurance is not necessarily a barrier for Harvard’s students of color, BGLTQ+ students, or students from low-income backgrounds, such factors continue to limit accessibility of mental health resources.

According to Barbara Lewis, the acting chief of Counseling and Mental Health Services, only 25 percent of CAMHS clinicians identify as people of color, while around 40 percent of the College identifies as such. This disparity is a problem because, according to research and Harvard student narratives, shared race or ethnicity between patients and clinicians breaks down barriers that prevent students of color from seeking professional mental health services. Research shows that clients prefer clinician of their own race and perceive them somewhat more positively than other clinicians. Therefore, clients are more likely to complete treatment when they are matched with clinicians of their same race or ethnicity. Despite initiatives to ensure quality health services to low-income and minority students, including health insurance and CAMHS’s special focus on “women’s mental health,” without clinicians who share similar worldviews, values, and experiences, many marginalized students are left unable to access quality mental health services tailored to their particular experiences on Harvard’s campus.

On its website, CAMHS does not provide students the option to select a clinician based on minority identity or identities. Many students also feel that UHS has failed to make substantial systemic changes despite student outcry, leading us to wonder whether the mental health of marginalized students is as much of a priority as that of the perceived norm of the white, cis, heterosexual, socioeconomically privileged Harvard student. We call on CAMHS to actively pursue clinicians who can understand and advocate for marginalized students. CAMHS must hire individuals who represent a broader spectrum of identities, and be supported and rewarded for their excellence, so they do not actively seek positions with more support and less pressure elsewhere.

We call on the Harvard administration to dedicate more funds to the development and refinement of mental health services for marginalized students. Columbia University’s current counseling and psychological services enable students to select clinicians based on areas of special interest, including trauma support, BGLTQ+, religious or spiritual concerns, multicultural concerns, and body image and eating disorders. The diversity, accessibility, and transparency of these resources should be similarly reflected in CAMHS staff and services. We also want transparency about the reallocation of funds from the closing of the Stillman Infirmary. If financial constraints are an obstacle for hiring more diverse CAMHS staff, we suggest implementing a capital campaign for the improvement of mental health services of marginalized students or implementing Columbia University’s fundraising strategy, which calls for increasing student health fees by 7.5 percent.

Lastly, we call on students, faculty, and staff to join us in demanding a reflection of marginalized students’ experiences, culture, and identity in CAMHS staff and services. Students can complete an ongoing survey we are conducting to collect quantitative and qualitative data about experiences with CAMHS. We ask that faculty and staff hold conversations on and in the spaces over which they hold power and reflect on the ways in which they can better support minority and marginalized students.

We, Diversify CAMHS, in coalition with a wide range of student cultural and affinity organizations, call on Counseling and Mental Health Services to ensure equal access to and quality of mental health services for marginalized and minority Harvard students. Now is the time to support all students. Diversify Counseling and Mental Health Services.

Karla Mendoza '17 is a psychology concentrator in Leverett House. Kara Lessin '16 is a women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Eliot House. Bernadette N. Lim '16 is human evolutionary biology concentrator in Dunster House. Noah Wagner '18 is a social studies concentrator in Quincy House.


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