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Notre Dame’s international, minority students face obstacles in mental health care

| Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Editor’s note: This is part two 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 three.

Lydia Adongo, Notre Dame Master of Laws ’20, felt her counselor didn’t understand her.

She had gone to an individual counseling session at the University Counseling Center (UCC), but there she and the counselor struggled to find common ground. An international student from Africa, Adongo said she felt more comfortable speaking to mental health professionals back home.

As Adongo shared what was troubling her, she sensed the counselor growing uncomfortable. Adongo felt the counselor did care about helping her but wondered why they struggled to connect. The session may have simply been too short to tell, she said.

Adongo left the counseling room crying. She had to walk past the reception and waiting room where people were sitting. Embarrassed, she covered her face with her arm, rushing to a women’s restroom to calm down.

“If [the counselor] understood really what I was going through, she wouldn’t let me go if I was still crying,” Adongo said. 

Because of this experience, Adongo never returned to the UCC.

Paradoxically, minority students at colleges and universities tend to seek counseling at lower rates than white students despite reporting more feelings and behaviors associated with mental distress, like hopelessness and depression.

A number of factors may stand between these students and proper mental health care. For one, they may find it harder to find care that caters to their unique needs. Second, feelings of isolation and loneliness on campus may discourage them from seeking out counseling and other forms of treatment.

The UCC did not provide the demographic breakdown on students who use its services, but this phenomenon may be at play at Notre Dame, UCC director Christine Conway said.

“The UCC is committed to meeting the needs and providing culturally informed services to all our students, including international students and students from under-represented groups,” Conway said in a statement to The Observer. “We understand that students from different cultural backgrounds may be less inclined to seek out counseling services and we do intentionally collaborate with different offices on campus to reach out to these student groups.”

Annie Smierciak | The Observer
Students at the Health and Wellness Expo in 2017. The event was sponsored by the McWell Center.

Culturally informed care

One major challenge facing colleges and universities is providing culturally informed care to their students.

A 2006 publication from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration points out that conventional counseling practices are largely rooted in the Western perspective. This presents a unique challenge for higher ed institutions, which often serve diverse populations. Counselors may find it hard to relate with their students, who bring with them a broad range of values and belief systems. According to the study, clinicians ought to tailor their services to the specific needs of the groups they serve.

This may be why a 2011 study from the Journal of Counseling Psychology suggests people usually prefer therapists of their own race or ethnicity. Still, the study showed race and ethnicity do not have a significant impact on the effectiveness of mental health treatment.

According to the UCC’s website, three of the center’s senior counseling staff specialize in multicultural counseling. There is only one full-time counselor who specializes in counseling international students and immigrants, Weiyang Xie. Xie is also the only counselor who is able to conduct bilingual therapy — English and Chinese Mandarin.

Conway said the UCC considers diversifying its staff a “high priority,” though one hampered by recruiting challenges.

“We know that students would like to see their own identities represented on our staff, and we would like to attract and employ a diverse staff of counselors,” Conway said. “While this is our goal, it’s not so easy to achieve, given the supply and demand in the field of psychology right now.”

Employment trends in the field of mental health professionals reflect this reality. A 2018 article from the American Psychological Association reported that of all U.S. psychologists in 2015, only 5% were Asian, 3% were black or African American and 4% were Hispanic — all lower than their percentages in the greater U.S. population.

Conway said equally important to a diverse staff is regular cultural competency training.

“The UCC staff actively works to understanding the needs of our diverse student body, to be sensitive to diverse cultural contexts and to increase our own awareness and understanding of our identities and worldviews and the impact that this has on our interactions with those from different cultural backgrounds,” Conway said.

Conway said clinicians are continually trained to provide culturally competent care, and host regular staff development meetings and attend conferences and seminars on topics relating to diversity and inclusion.

Support across campus

The University’s 2018 Inclusive Campus Student Survey found minority students at Notre Dame on average report a lower sense of belonging and higher levels of loneliness than white students.

Conway said the UCC collaborates with a number of campus organizations to expand outreach to these groups. For example, it works with International Student and Scholar Affairs (ISSA) at different events throughout the academic year to inform minority and international students about mental health resources.

The McDonald Center for Student Well-Being, also known as McWell, also provides resources for underserved groups, McWell director Megan Brown said in an email. McWell has worked with Multicultural Student Programs and Services, the Office of Student Enrichment, student government, Residential Life, diversity and inclusion clubs and other organizations, she said.

As of the spring semester, Brown said McWell’s nonstudent staff of six included two people of color. She said the center considers diversity a priority when hiring.

“Our staff values diversity of all types, not just ethnic diversity,” Brown said. “Being aware and sensitive to the needs of all students, particularly those who are underrepresented or marginalized, is something we discuss regularly.”

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