Imagine you’re at university and are subject to a racist attack by white students. If you decided it would be useful to go to counselling to talk about it, how much would the therapist’s race matter?
For Cambridge students, it’s emerged that the answer is “a lot”. Last month, while on-campus racism continued to grab headlines, Cambridge University’s counselling service made a vital shift in response to student demand: for the first time, black and minority ethnic (BME) students can now specifically request to see BME counsellors. As the welfare and rights officer, I pushed for the change; but the process raised a host of questions and challenges about the nature of counselling, and the way institutionalised support caters to students’ social and political identities.
Conducting a student survey and report on BME students’ attitudes to and experiences of therapy, I found that 79% felt they would benefit from seeing a counsellor who was also BME. To me, this is not a surprise – we know that people of colour are more likely to experience mental health problems in the first place, are less likely to access services, and have poorer experiences within them when they do. So many aspects of mental health are informed by social creations – they don’t exist in a vacuum devoid of aspects of identity – and so our treatment and services should reflect this.
The specific stressors people from ethnic minorities are up against can also be exacerbated in the university context. At Cambridge, although it is not the only example, we are in the extreme minority, and face racial profiling and stereotyping by staff, social alienation, and institutional barriers to attainment. We’re also routinely questioned about the validity and accuracy of our experiences of racism, as if they’re fantasies we’ve invented. The therapeutic environment is the last place a student wants to see these dynamics replicated – and I’ve seen students go as far as commuting to London to see therapists who “get it”.
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In the survey report, students described counselling experiences both in and outside Cambridge. When seeing white counsellors, students were often met with a lack of understanding when it came to race. The words “explaining”, “lecturing” and “teaching” came up more than once in students’ testimonials, demonstrating how therapy can quickly slip into providing emotional and educational labour just to get your therapist on the same page as you. Culturally relative family dynamics were also commonly misunderstood. For example, explaining that your parents aren’t controlling and over-involved, but that middle-class English parents tend to be more lax than in many cultures. Some students found the words and persisted, but some went once and never went back.
Overt racism or ignorance was rare, but did happen; once in therapy a student was asked if his family happened to be fleeing a regime. But more commonly it was the little things – being asked what a microaggression was, if you’ve ever just thought about severing ties with your parents, or if you were really, 100% sure that something was racist. These are questions we’ve often dealt with, and don’t need to unravel.
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This conversation turns some fundamental assumptions about what therapy is about on their heads. Is it a neutral space? Can such a thing exist? A lot of the most specific challenges I’ve had have come from people I know who are therapists themselves. Some felt the goal of therapy was not to match clients to therapists, or even that differences in background were to be sought after in the therapeutic relationship. Perhaps it’s sometimes better for the listener to be removed from the problem – a more neutral entity that prompts the client to question their perceptions. Sometimes, yes. But we should let clients choose – if we truly feel uncomfortable and distant from the service provider, there’s a slim chance we’re going to progress.
At Cambridge, we’re now guaranteed to be matched up with minority ethnic counsellors if we request it. We have enough BME counsellors to sustain the initiative – and through groups like the Black, African and Asian Therapy Network, we’ve found there are more minority ethnic practitioners in Cambridge than you would assume in such a white space. It’s a simple change at little expense, but it signals a fundamental shift towards client empowerment.
However, we’re just one service within one university; all mental health service providers should be considering practical changes that might support people of colour, who are an at-risk group. While services commonly acknowledge the impact of gender on mental health (perhaps as counselling is a profession dominated by women), we often find ourselves afraid to talk about race – as if it’s a step too far in the direction of the “political” in an environment intended to be placid and neutral. But acknowledging race doesn’t have to be agitating.
A one-size-fits-all approach is not the most nuanced way of tackling the student mental health crisis. The same groups will continue to slip through the cracks if our services do not respond to the social and political climates that they are inextricably intertwined with. Within services, people of colour deserve structures created for us, when the wider world is in so many ways structured against us.
Micha Frazer-Carroll is a psychology graduate, and the welfare and rights officer at Cambridge University students’ union
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