two women talking

How University Counseling Centers Can Better Serve BIPOC Students

February 8, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on everyone’s mental health, including college students. Studies have found that students who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) face additional mental health challenges as a result of both racial and pandemic-related stressors. We spoke to counselors at the Student and Community Counseling Center, as well as to faculty in the Department of Psychology, about what university counseling centers can do to provide culturally sensitive mental health services.

Do BIPOC Students Need Different Types of Therapy?

Most college students are experiencing stress related to their life stage, education, and the pandemic. “There are commonalities among us all,” said Assistant Professor Sneha Thamotharan, PhD, faculty in the Clinical Health Psychology Program. “What’s important to realize is that, just like anyone, the more stress is added, the more strain it’s going to place on that individual’s mental and physical health. BIPOC students experience both stress common to us all and those specific to belonging to a minoritized and oppressed group. This stress begins early and is enduring.”

Athena Y. Baca-Chieza, PsyD, who coordinates clinical training in the Clinical Health Psychology PhD Program and directs their student-run psychology clinic, acknowledges that BIPOC students experience the same mental health concerns as non-minoritized students. “As people of color, we’re always carrying with us the general mental health needs and general stressors that humans are carrying,” she said. But BIPOC students face other mental health issues related to their identity. “There are specific, unique mental health needs for students of color,” she added.

Consider Black students, for example. “Black students might be carrying regular stressors—classroom work, phase-of-life issues, finances—and in addition to that, they are also carrying the stressors of being Black young adults in a socio-political climate where being Black is so fraught with constant stressors,” Baca-Chieza explained. “Who is my ally? Who can I trust? Black students are fearful of things that others have never had to worry about: police brutality, equitable treatment in the healthcare system, neighborhood violence, food insecurity—not to mention the vicarious trauma of seeing your people killed on video.”

Culturally Sensitive Mental Health Counseling

According to a survey by The JED Foundation, students of color feel less emotionally prepared for college than their white peers. Baca-Chieza and Thamotharan both stated that BIPOC students need culturally sensitive mental health services. A 2019 poll by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors found that approximately 70% of staff members were white and 75% were cis-females.

demographics of counseling center staff chart
Demographics of counseling center staff nationwide, according to the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors

CU Denver’s Student and Community Counseling Center looked to increase diversity and meet additional needs by hiring Jessica A. Jaramillo, MS, LPC, and Avary Lin-Ye, MSEd, LPC, counselors who also serve as multicultural specialists. “That title of multicultural specialist feels like the university is taking seriously the concerns that come up in counseling,” Lin-Ye said. Jaramillo agreed: “As a whole, the university is putting some weight on diversity and inclusion.”

Diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are especially important in the field of psychology, according to experts. “A lot of psychology was developed initially with a very individualized approach based on how to treat the white male,” Jaramillo said. “Mental health came from a Euro-American individual background and it has stayed like that. But almost every culture is collectivist—it’s very much about the community and the roles you play in it,” Lin-Ye added.

Jaramillo and Lin-Ye both discussed how BIPOC students may come from communities that distrust healthcare professionals. “With BIPOC students, there isn’t as strong a history of reaching out to get mental health services, individually or as a group,” Lin-Ye said. “With the Hispanic population, it’s not uncommon to hear that mental health is for ‘crazy’ people,” Jaramillo said. “I’m in mental health and I’m Hispanic—I can relate to it and I can tell you why that’s not the case.”

What is Racial Battle Fatigue?

Thamotharan, whose research at the Psychology Clinic focuses on delivering inclusive pediatric health care, is currently supervising a doctoral student conducting research on racial battle fatigue. What is racial battle fatigue? Basically, it’s an accumulation of mental and emotional stress that results from everyday race-related interactions.

“BIPOC students experience racial battle fatigue frequently and everywhere, including our classrooms,” Thamotharan said. “When you’re the one who constantly advocates and educates, it’s so draining … it’s like chronic fatigue.” If BIPOC students seeking counseling have to explain the concept of racial battle fatigue to their counselor, that in itself may compound their race-related stress.

“The ability to endure microaggressions is not easy,” Jaramillo said. “Looking at me, you can see I also experience various degrees of minoritizing.” Lin-Ye puts it another way: “It’s like having to be ‘on’ all the time; there’s so much on you related to what you’re representing.” When BIPOC students see counselors who look like them, they report feeling more at ease, partially because they know they won’t have to explain the day-to-day race-related stressors they face.  

Representation in Mental Health

The Clinical Health Psychology PhD Program is also responding to the lack of diversity in university mental health clinics. “We are addressing this in multifold ways,” said Baca-Chieza. “We are a student-run clinic. Our therapists are the doctoral students in our program, so it needs to start with how we admit BIPOC students into the doctoral program to begin with.”

Baca-Chieza points out that not all students, and in particular, BIPOC students, have had the same educational access as other applicants. She gave the example of standardized tests like the GRE as a systemic barrier to students of color, among other barriers that make applying for and competing for higher-level education challenging, she said. “If we’re a student-run clinic and we only admit white students, having therapists in our student-run clinic who accurately represent the population we serve, including and especially our BIPOC students, clearly becomes impossible.”

In addition to looking at admission processes that increase BIPOC enrollment, the doctoral program at CU Denver has a curriculum that prepares mental health providers to deliver culturally responsive services. “Our students take classes throughout their training that focus on and incorporate the importance of multiculturalism and diversity into every aspect of their learning. These classes are embedded in the doctoral training, so that we graduate clinicians who value and appreciate how one’s culture, ethnicity, and individual experience impacts their mental and physical health.”