April 17, 2018

AHMAD | A Call for Diversity in Mental Health Services

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In my sophomore year, I had a friend who went through the mental breakdown that all of us have at some point in our college careers. Some call it the pre-quarter life crisis, others call it an existential collapse, but I have termed it The Infamous “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life” Meltdown.

As I said, I think we all experience this to an extent, but for some people, this breakdown affects them much more intensely than others. My friend, unfortunately, fell victim to the more severe end of the mental breakdown scale. Her parents were constantly pressuring her to go into a STEM field, but she had no interest in doing so. She wanted to major in Communications, which, to her Middle Eastern family, was unheard of. Thus, her crisis didn’t lie so much in “I don’t know what I want to do,” but was more so along the lines of “I don’t want to do what my parents want me to do.” While this is quite a common dilemma, it started taking a serious toll on her. She stopped attending classes, didn’t want to leave her apartment and started to say that she felt “hopeless” and “lost.”

I recommended — and eventually begged — that she go to CAPS or EARS, Cornell’s most widely advertised mental health counseling services. I used every cliche line in the book: “They’re there for a reason!” and “Just try one time, for me.” None of them worked. Frustrated, I finally demanded that she give me one good reason why she wasn’t getting the help that she clearly needed, and response was “I know that they won’t get it.”

My friend was concerned that there was a lack of diversity in the mental health counseling services we had on campus.  She didn’t feel comfortable talking to someone who had no idea what her experience was, and thus could never truly understand what her issues were. She told me how, in the past, countless advisors and counselors had told her to just do what she was passionate about and tell her parents that it was her life and thus, her decision. She even had a professor tell her “if your parents want you to major in STEM so badly, tell them that they should get a degree in the field instead of forcing you to!” However, these answers were frustrating and annoying to hear, because that “just wasn’t the way things worked” in her family. Everywhere she went, there seemed to be a lack understanding of the backdrop of cultural and ethnic values that she was working against.

Every time she tried to seek help, she would have to explain that in Middle Eastern families there was a huge emphasis placed on obeying your parents, that there were cultural stereotypes associated with certain professions, and that it simply wasn’t that easy to solve her dilemma. Eventually, it became exhausting for her to try and get help, so she stopped altogether.

When I heard the news of Cornell’s Counseling and Psychological Services adding new hires to decrease the waiting time for students who need to see therapists, I couldn’t help but think of my friend’s situation. I wondered whether or not Cornell took diversity of ethnic background into account when hiring these new people. I also wondered why it wasn’t obvious to them that they should have done so a long time ago.

It’s hard enough for students to recognize their mental health issues, force themselves to seek help, and then become comfortable talk openly about what they’re facing. The last thing that any student should face in addition to all of that is the burden of knowing that the professional they are talking to knows nothing of their experience because they have lived, essentially, completely different lives.

While my friend’s situation dealt with ethnic background, I think that diversity in mental health should incorporate all types of background: socioeconomic, religious, racial. At the very least, students should feel that the counselor or therapist they are speaking to can, to some degree, understand the battles they are fighting.

I don’t necessarily think that this flaw is only present in Cornell’s mental health services; rather, I think that there is just a general lack of diversity in the mental health and clinical psychology fields. However, this is certainly a plea for Cornell to start making an active effort to hire professional from different walks of life. Because although my friend was eventually able to overcome her mental health issues, I sure wish that she didn’t have to do so on her own.

Faiza Ahmad is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at fahmad@cornellsun.com. The Fifth Column runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.