For decades, students from certain demographics have been known to underutilize counseling services. For reasons including money, culture and stigma, male and minority students have long sought counseling at rates lower than their white and female peers, and they typically comprise a smaller percentage of a center’s clientele than they do of the general student body.
So counseling professionals were surprised – and pleased – by what they found in their annual survey of counseling center directors: an apparent closing of these gaps.
“Most of us have grown up in graduate school hearing about diverse students not utilizing counseling at the same level as majority students. That’s just been almost a given,” said Victor W. Barr, director of counseling and psychological services at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. “Therefore, everybody kind of thinks it’s true. And the question is, is it really true?”
Barr is the lead researcher of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors survey , which for the first time this year asked about the demographics of each center’s clientele and of the institution’s student body as a whole.
“We got remarkably consistent information,” Barr said. “They’re not dramatically different. They are different in some places, but not dramatically.”
Black students were barely underrepresented among the clients of AUCCCD’s 416 responding directors’ centers: they made up 10.1 percent of their clients, and 10.3 percent of their student bodies. The gap was wider among Hispanic students, who represent 8.2 percent of counseling center clients and 9.2 percent of students; Asian students -- a particularly tough group for counselors to reach -- comprise 5.8 and 7.1 percent, respectively.
But the gap was -- unsurprisingly -- widest by far among male students, who made up 43.8 percent of students generally but only 33.7 of those who sought counseling.
Still, that’s a significant improvement over years past, Barr said, recalling that about 30 years ago, male students probably made up only about a quarter of those in counseling.
Over time, a number of things have changed. Counseling professionals have intensified their outreach efforts – which today are a huge part of the work they do – and created targeted programs for special populations. That has corresponded with a slow but clear erosion of the stigma surrounding mental health issues and the need for counseling (a stigma that, for cultural reasons, is always most pronounced among male and Asian students).
“I think over time, it’s kind of become the norm for university counseling centers to make special efforts to reach out to diverse clientele,” said Dan Jones, president of AUCCCD and director of counseling and psychological services at Appalachian State University. “Counseling centers across the country are trying to show they’re user-friendly to these groups.”
In the survey, directors report doing everything from assigning staff liaisons to multicultural offices, to hiring more diverse counselors, to hosting student focus groups on how to better serve different demographic groups.
Encouraging underrepresented groups to come in can be as easy as including photographs of diverse students in counseling center brochures, or creating a positive experience for a student who does come in. Hopefully, that student will in turn encourage friends who need it to seek help.
“It can be really subtle and really simple,” said Mary-Jeanne Raleigh, director of counseling services at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and president of the American College Counseling Association. “You let people know, ‘O.K., this is a center that understands my differences and celebrates that, or understands my similarities and celebrates that.' ”
Raleigh said the student demographic figures reported in the survey were “maybe more positive” than she would have expected.
“I’m not seeing really great disparity between the student body and the demographics of those using the counseling services. Those mirror each other really nicely, which, to be honest, is what we’re all shooting for,” Raleigh said.
Another important step to making prospective clients more comfortable is hiring diverse staff members, Raleigh said. The AUCCCD survey found that while 74 percent of center staff are white and 88 percent heterosexual, among new hires, those percentages were slightly lower: 67 and 86, respectively. Breaking it down by race, the biggest differences between incumbent and new hires were among black and Asian employees, at 10.07 and 12.67 percent, and 6.24 and 8.63 percent.
Some campus chapters of Active Minds, the nationwide organization that works to combat stigma over mental health issues, are exploring different types of programming to reach the students who are most hesitant to seek help.
“I think in general, everybody is a little more aware of the fact that when doing mental health outreach and education, you can’t just do it one way. You have to speak to all of the diversity and audiences that you have,” said Alison Malmon, executive director of Active Minds. “Language is really important, and how we talk about mental health is really important, especially among the black community. Really talking about stress in less clinical terms is really a much better way to get people talking about these initiatives.”
And once students are discussing these issues and feeling comfortable about them, they’ll feel more secure seeking help.
Robert P. Gallagher, who directed the University of Pittsburgh counseling center for 25 years and now conducts the National Survey of Counseling Center Directors  that is sponsored by the ACCA, noted that this trend may bode even better for future students than it does for current ones.
“The longer this goes on, I think, the better,” Gallagher said. “You’re going to get more and more second-generation African American students going to college. The first-generation students tend to underutilize, generally, but if their parents have gone to college they’re much more likely to take advantage of college services. It doesn’t have the same kind of stigma.”