How to Address Student Mental Health Equity on Campus

Diverse students in conversation. Photo by Moe Magners.

Mental health inequities have disproportionately impacted historically marginalized populations for decades – and this is true on college campuses all across the country. Among the most vulnerable are students with disabilities, low-income students, BIPOC students, students in the LGBTQ+ community, and students living in remote areas. 

Students identifying as LGBTQIA+, for example, are experiencing more stress, feelings of loneliness or isolation, difficulty with schoolwork, and depression compared to their non-LGBTQIA+ counterparts – and 42% seriously considered attempting suicide in 2020. Likewise, students of color are facing higher rates of depression compared to their white counterparts, and among those with intersectional identities, the barriers are even more aggravated. 

In addition to witnessing ongoing pandemic, changing political climate, rising social justice movement, and uncertain economic climate, students are facing numerous personal hardships, including financial strain, cultural differences, academic pressures, trauma, discrimination or racial microaggressions, all which is leading to worsening student mental health outcomes and a greater need for mental health support on campus.

Barriers Preventing Students from Accessing Mental Health Services

When faced with high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, students should be turning to on-campus mental health services, but many students of color and those in minority populations will not – and it’s not because they’re busy balancing school assignments, family obligations, sports, work schedules, or other aspects of college life, though that is often the case. In addition to facing numerous social determinants of health, these student populations face the very real possibility of inappropriate, ineffective, or lower quality care

“Research suggests that although there's a great need for mental health services among historically marginalized college and university students, there are significant barriers to accessing and actually using quality-affirming care,” says Farah Gilani, LPC-S, a clinical solutions consultant at Mantra Health.

On-campus counseling centers provide tremendous value to students, but clinicians aren’t always trained in cultural competence and may not have expertise in working with BIPOC, LGBTQ+, or other minority populations – and this can, unfortunately, lessen the effectiveness of a student’s treatment or care. Understanding a college student’s cultural background, linguistic need, or identity challenges can not only enhance a student’s care experience, but can improve their overall mental health. 

Studies on microaggressions and cultural competence in mental healthcare have shown that minority clients are 50% more likely to prematurely terminate their relationship with a counselor or mental health professional after the initial meeting – and this has a direct impact on the individual’s mental health. 

Close Student Mental Health Equity Gaps

To achieve greater student health equity on campus, colleges and universities must revitalize their mental health offerings and recognize the unique behavioral and mental health needs of minority populations. In doing so, student mental health will improve – and so, too, will student success. Here’s what you can do to improve your mental health care on campus:

Collect accurate student-level data

Colleges should be collecting information on students’ backgrounds, identities, and preferences in order to develop and offer more tailored resources, programs, and service offerings. The more accurate the numbers, the easier it is to build proposals for funding, develop comprehensive student support services, and implement training sessions. Leverage your campus climate surveys and other screening tools to better understand your student body and what they need to succeed on campus.

Reevaluate your policies and procedures

Is your existing structure conducive to all students, regardless of their background, identity, or lifestyle? If not, consider adjusting your policies or procedures to better account for student preferences. A gender non-conforming student, for example, may not want to choose a gender on forms, or they may wish to use a chosen name as opposed to a birth name in their student email or on their student ID. Changes to the existing structure may require cross-campus collaboration, but would make a significant difference to the individual student. 

Train providers and campus staff in cultural competence and humility

Clinical providers, as well as staff, professors, and other higher education leaders should be engaging in the most culturally-responsive practices. It’s not enough to simply understand cultural barriers; colleges and universities should strive for cultural competence and humility. Beyond providing written materials, you can host webinars, training sessions, or workshops for providers, as well as faculty, staff, and students. Make sure everyone on campus is given the opportunity to learn and grow.

Provide more personalized offerings to minority students

Navigating mental health as a minority student is challenging, especially when resources are tailored to white cisgendered students. Ensure that all intersectional identities are reflected in campus offerings, including in mental health resources, workshops, clubs, peer support groups, community spaces, and clinical providers. If you’re unsure what students want or need, simply ask. 

Diversify your care offerings

Extending your school’s mental health services to include telemental health providers is an important step in removing barriers to care, but isn’t enough to meet minority students’ needs. Colleges and universities should ensure that their provider network is full of diverse providers who have unique specialities and can meet students where they are. Hiring BIPOC providers is important, but so is hiring providers who have expertise in working with students with disabilities or students who are parents or international students who face language and cultural barriers. 

Closing the student mental health equity gap won’t happen overnight, but colleges and universities can take many steps to improve their diversity and inclusion efforts across all aspects of student life. Expanding counseling center offerings to include more diverse care is just one aspect of the solution, but it can make a big difference to the minority students who don’t currently have access to quality mental health services. 

Mantra Health can work with higher education leaders to address student mental health needs. Our 50-state provider group is trained in cultural competence (and humility). Fifty-percent of our providers identify as BIPOC and have lived experiences. To learn more about our mental health service offerings and how we can work with your campus, contact our partnerships team today.