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Minority students at SMC struggle to find mental health resources

| Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Editor’s note: This is part three of a three-part series on mental health services at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s. Follow these links to find part one and part two.

Imán Omar, a Saint Mary’s senior, feels the pull of many strings: she is a black, Muslim, South African woman who spent the past four-odd years at a predominantly white institution.

“It’s a constant battle where I feel like I don’t belong anywhere and have had to create my own identity,” Omar said. 

She struggled to feel a sense of belonging at Saint Mary’s — and she is not the only one. 

Minority students at the College often have to try harder to find mental health and wellbeing resources that cater to their unique needs.

In terms of staff, Saint Mary’s counseling center is better off than most higher-ed institutions. The national average for mental health professionals to students is around 1:1,000-1,500, while the ratio of counselors to students at Saint Mary’s is about 1:460.

But for many minority students, it’s difficult to find common ground with professionals who lack expertise in multicultural or international counseling. As of the spring 2020 semester, none of the three mental health counselors at Saint Mary’s specialized in this area.

Omar said this is why she sometimes felt misunderstood by the counselors at Saint Mary’s.

(Editor’s Note: Omar is a former News Writer for The Observer)

“I had an experience with a counselor [at Saint Mary’s] where I was explaining how I felt isolated in terms of identity, which is normal for international students,” Omar said. “But I’m also Muslim and African, and all these identities affect me. She just kind of went, ‘Well, you chose to come to a Catholic college.’ Which was valid, but that’s not what I’m trying to hear from a counselor.”

Notre Dame has three senior counseling staff members who specialize in multicultural counseling, but while students in the tri-campus community are encouraged to take advantage of academic and extra-curricular resources from all three institutions, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross cannot receive counseling at Notre Dame.

These services are reserved for “degree-seeking students” at the University, according to the University Counseling Center (UCC) website.

UCC director Christine Conway said Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross students are not eligible for UCC services because the colleges “offer their own counseling services.”

Tom DeHorn, director of counseling and health at Holy Cross, offered a similar explanation. 

“Students have [a health clinic] here and they’re paying tuition to utilize these services,” he said. “They’re paying for our services because they’re a Holy Cross student.”

Available resources

Saint Mary’s offers a number of other resources specifically for multicultural and international students, many provided through the International Student/Scholar Services office in the College’s Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership.

However, Omar said these resources are often not enough to support all students who need them. As a result, minority students sometimes have to look in unconventional areas to get the help they need.

“It shouldn’t be all on the students to get everything they need, especially because I feel like international students get used so much for diversity advertisements,” Omar said. “You’re advertising that you’re diverse and inclusive, but this means that you should take care of the diverse students on campus.”

Students sometimes turn to residence hall staff for mental health support instead of seeking professional help directly.

“Many students visit hall directors to talk about a variety of things including mental health,” Holy Cross Hall director Ally Straeson said. “Some turn to their RAs or the hall MA for support, but there are many who come directly to their hall director. Whether a student turns to a hall director, an RA, or an MA, they are always provided with resources and referred to the Health and Counseling Center or other campus resources including Campus Ministry and BAVO.”

Saint Mary’s hall directors are not trained to provide mental health counseling. Instead, Straeson said, they’re taught to connect residents with the appropriate resources when they need help.

“The Health and Counseling Center does not have on-call counselors, but students have the opportunity to see a counselor from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. In the off hours, hall directors respond … and will be involved every step of the way,” Straeson said. “The only time Residence Life would no longer be involved is if the student was transferred to a mental health facility off campus or no longer a resident of campus.”

While Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross students cannot receive counseling at Notre Dame, the University’s Multicultural Student Programs and Services (MSPS) is open for students across all three campuses. Director Arnel Bulaoro said MSPS works directly with the University Counseling Center and the McDonald Student Center for Well-Being (McWell) to create programs that serve underrepresented student populations.

“In 2008, the University Counseling Center partnered with MSPS to serve as one of several campus locations for a program titled ‘Let’s Talk,’” Bulaoro said. “A more recent program, ‘Stock Your Toolbox’ … is a skill-based workshop designed to assist students as they face the everyday stress of life on the Notre Dame campus.”

Bulaoro said MSPS serves as a bridge between minority student groups and institutions across the University. In order to connect students with mental health resources, Bulaoro said MSPS first helps students realize they are not alone, while also addressing the crisis of identity many may feel at the University. 

“One of the biggest hurdles we run into is the stigma students have of meeting with professionals,” he said. “Faculty also have their own struggles, and shared stories add perspective that make a student realize, ‘it’s not just me.’”

Bulaoro sees MSPS as an entry point for students looking for resources all around campus. He said it is a “natural place for first encounters,” and a space for “all students in the tri-campus community.” 

Looking ahead

Hannah Simpson, president of the College’s Black Student Association, said Saint Mary’s could do more to support mental health for minority students.

“There is still an issue of a lack of representation that should still be taken into consideration for the purposes of supporting underrepresented students,” she said.

Students at Saint Mary’s are taking notice. In February, the Black Student Association held a round table event to break the stigma surrounding mental illness in the black community. Students met to discuss stigma, prejudice and lack of resources available to the black community, which can prevent students from reaching out to receive the care they need.

Omar said she is unsure if resources for minority and international students will ever become more accessible in the tri-campus community. 

“It kind of feels hopeless in a way,” she said. “As an international student, I feel like I’ve screamed a lot of these issues to people and they’ll say ‘I hear you, but we’re not going to do anything about it.’”

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About Gina Twardosz

Gina Twardosz is a senior English Writing and Communication Studies double major at Saint Mary's College. She's the co-editor of the Investigative Unit, a Saint Mary's social media liaison, and she occasionally writes for SMC News and Scene. Gina is a tried and true Midwesterner and yes, she does say "ope" often.

Contact Gina