Funding alone cannot support mental health of students of color
Remember the time Ariana Grande gave her fans $5 million of free therapy? It felt like a fevered dream. A Grammy-winning artist was offering free and accessible mental health support before my school and healthcare provider. Like many students in college, I was burned out from back-to-back finals at the time and curious to see whether the singer of “Just keep breathin” could actually help me breathe.
Through weekly live video chats, my counselor and I were able to pin and deconstruct the sources of my daily stress and anxiety. Our conversations were flexible, non-judgmental, and confidential. I could talk about literally anything that was on my mind and most importantly felt heard.
I learned throughout my first therapy trial that mental health care is not a transaction but a partnership. I often experience a disconnect with counselors and healthcare providers of backgrounds different than my own. The intersection of my minority identities - Asian-American, Hindu, and vegetarian - made it more difficult to communicate culturally-specific stressors such as experiences with racism with my White therapist. Addressing mental health issues for students of color, particularly those of low-income and first-generation backgrounds, can be very challenging on college campuses.
Earlier this year, President Joe Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA), spearheaded by Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, into law. Not only was this the first major gun safety legislation in decades, but it also reinvested in school-based mental health services. This includes a national expansion of behavioral health center models, integration of mental health services into Medicaid and CHIP, and improved provider training in suicide prevention, crisis and trauma.
The BSCA has also pledged enormous funding packages towards youth mental health such as $500 million to increase the number of qualified mental health providers, $500 million to diversify school counselors and psychologists, and $1 billion to improve student learning conditions.
Expanding mental health care into the educational sector is a promising goal, but funding alone cannot guarantee equitable care to marginalized student populations. Based on my personal experiences with mental health care as a student, I argue for a greater understanding of social and cultural context among Connecticut policymakers before enabling the appropriate behavioral and educational provisions.
With increased federal funding, the U.S. Department of Education has recommended that states learn from evidence-based research, reduce absenteeism, and improve continuity for children who transition between primary and secondary education. This means that there must be a greater effort for solutions to meet marginalized students where they are.
The COVID-19 pandemic shed light on pre-existing student mental health gaps, which are exacerbated due to distance learning and increased social isolation. Connecticut students of color have encountered racialized aggression throughout the pandemic, from “Zoombombs” with racist slurs to hate speech on social media. A 2020 UConn Microaggressions Survey reported that 50% of students felt isolated on campus due to their race and 40% felt pressured to minimize elements of their racial identity. Racial hostility towards students of color can have ripple effects on their healthy eating, classroom focus, and feelings of safety.
I recommend that within the BSCA funding for Connecticut schools, a portion should fund qualitative research on minority student experiences. Data that captures the social and cultural underpinnings of mental health can inform the recruitment of a diverse workforce that adequately closes the gap.
Despite the bipartisan nature of the BSCA, calls for expanding mental health care in schools have met with backlash from some Connecticut lawmakers in regard to parental consent. Multiple Republicans have cited that parents often feel excluded from decisions around their child’s health. This has prompted amendments that would automatically notify parents of their child’s mental health services unless it would result in family violence. Although parents may feel left out of their decision, these ideas may worsen the existing stigma around a child’s daunting journey to seek help.
Instead of introducing more legislative barriers, I believe that we can broaden the impact of the BSCA by finding more school-based allies for students of color. Implementing more evidence-based practices into school-based mental health counseling can help thousands of Connecticut students find a safe space, and in the words of Ariana Grande, “just keep breathin.”
Mukund Desibhatla is a Master of Public Health candidate at Yale School of Public Health.