Mental health services need more diversity

Ryerson’s Health and Wellness Centre has been a vital resource for students battling mental health issues, but its lack of diversity has many students of colour feeling left behind.

The hued racial composition on campus is hard to miss. Walk along Gould Street on a busy afternoon and you’ll see a true reflection of Toronto’s fast-growing ethno-cultural community, which now makes up almost half of the city’s population.

But for all the diversity in its student population, Ryerson’s staff, faculty and services just haven’t kept up.

Casandra Fulwood, co-ordinator of the Racialised Students’ Collective. (Photo by Milca Kuflu)

According to the university’s Diversity Self-ID report, only 24 per cent of faculty self-identify as “visible minorities/racial employees,” compared to 55 per cent of full-time students.

Students have also experienced this lack of representation when accessing mental health resources.

One engineering student, who has used Ryerson’s mental health services more than once, said that although his counsellors tried their best, they simply couldn’t understand his experiences.

“They don’t know how to talk to a young black male who’s doing a high-stress subject because they haven’t seen one,” he said.

“There’s not much understanding there, they can’t relate to me, and that’s a big problem. How can you help me if I don’t trust you?”

As the first person in his family to go to university, he said he feels a lot of pressure to “be a constant pillar of success.”

Reports like the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) Mental Health Report show that the expectation students of colour have to thrive in academic settings while pocketing the added weights of racial trauma or discrimination can affect their mental health.

The fight for diversification in mental health and wellness services echoes off-campus too.

According to a Mental Health Commission of Canada study published in 2016, service accessibility is one of the biggest issues immigrant, refugee, ethno-cultural or racialized communities face — with “the most pertinent being the cultural incompatibility of existing services.”

Many universities, including Ryerson, have made commitments to increasing accessibility to mental health services.

Indigenous elders on campus, who provide spiritual and personal support, and the new Muslim chaplaincy, who provides faith based guidance to Muslim students, do exist. But cultural-specific counselling still hasn’t been implemented.

The Ryerson Mental Health report in 2017 stated that 49 per cent of students felt so depressed that it was difficult to function, while 67 per cent had overwhelming anxiety.

But the university’s mental health strategy, which is included in the report, makes no mention of any racial demographics.

This small fracture in the report points to the countrywide absence of race-based data in universities. According to the CBC, Ryerson is one of more than 60 universities that don’t keep track of their racial demographics.

Zandra Alexander, one of Ryerson’s media relations officers, said the university’s vice-president of Equity and Community Inclusion, Denise O’Neil Green, is working to “help create outreach programs that will better engage racialized students on campus.”

The Diversity Self-ID is planning to extend its survey to students and will run this fall.

For Camryn Harlick, vice-president of equity at the Ryerson Students’ Union, what matters most is what gets done with the data once it’s collected.

“Are they going to use data to implement programs that help better racialized students’ lives on campus?”

Harlick added that Ryerson should not tokenize students just so they can say they’re diverse without actually creating a safer space for marginalized students.

Casandra Fulwood, who works as a Racialised Students’ Collective co-ordinator, said investing in services representing that student body is just not a top priority.

She has seen numerous students who have been referred to her collective, and said that it isn’t fair to the organization.

“I think it’s laziness. Why would you send students (to) come to us knowing that we don’t have the capacity to counsel students? I don’t turn anyone away, but I don’t have the experience or tools to counsel people,” she said.

Fulwood said that counsellors haven’t been empathetic to her personal experiences. “You can’t go in there and talk about racism from a prof because they don’t see racism as a serious thing.”

“I just stopped going,” Fulwood said.

She recounts being given referrals to services off-campus, such as Women’s Health in Women’s Hands, a mental health service prioritizing women of colour, which had wait times that were over a year.

For Fulwood, finding resources in times of need that are free and also good are difficult.

“I just try to take a day off at home and try to ground myself,” she said.

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