London’s University Mental Health Services are Failing Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Students – It’s time we had more BAME counsellors

Imagine your first counselling session. The counsellor shifts through your notes. You wiggle in your chair, awaiting the inevitable “so what brings you here today?” Nothing in this process is unusual. That is, until you find yourself having to translate your feelings and emotions into words. Then you realise your counsellor won’t understand the cultural or racial reasons which lead to you requesting a session.

For many Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students, who find themselves unable to communicate with white counsellors, this is a painfully familiar situation.

Understanding is paramount to delivering effective counselling. Yet students from BAME backgrounds often meet counsellors who don’t understand the unique barriers they face. Therefore, students from BAME backgrounds often become reluctant to seek support from counselling services.

Increasing the quota of BAME counsellors

Recent research from Birkbeck, University of London focused on breaking down such barriers and offers a working action plan for counselling services to tackle this issue. The research suggests that fears of prejudice, racism and lacking confidentiality were key hurdles for groups failing to access counselling. So were cultural stigmas associated to counselling. Crucially, therefore, the study recommends that universities raise their quota of BAME counselling and support staff.

Similarly, the Mental Health Foundation identified people from BAME backgrounds as more likely to become disengaged from mainstream mental health services. This often has sustained negative impacts on mental health. Even when people from BAME backgrounds seek help, the Foundation indicates, outcomes are frequently poor due to a lack of staff understanding. Many dread “Mrs Bibi-Syndrome”-type scenarios. This describes when patients from South-Asian backgrounds (specifically older women) are undermined and sidelined on the assumption that they exaggerate their symptoms.

Cultural attitudes can also be critical to many students’ reluctance to seek help. Counsellors from non-BAME backgrounds mainly follow western perceptions of mental health. This makes them unprepared for dealing with issues unique to BAME communities. They commonly fail to understand issues around race, sex, drinking and drug culture when speaking to BAME students. Furthermore, fearing lax confidentiality and families finding out what they say, many BAME students avoid opening up on such topics.

As a result, BAME students find culturally sensitive topics challenging to discuss. These downfalls are particularly evident when discussing relationships. Those afraid that their relationships and sexuality could jeopardise their safety at home are less likely to raise such issues with counsellors. Nevertheless, if facilitated properly, the security of being away from home could encourage more students to access the services they need.

Cambridge proves it works

Some institutions are making an active effort to tackle these issues. The University of Cambridge recently introduced BAME counsellors to their service. But this only came as a result of a push from BAME students. London universities are yet to match this scheme. However, many institutions sign-post to services aimed at BAME people, such as the Black, African and Asian Therapy Network. While this is important, universities must recognise that such services should be accessible on campus. This is where departments can be easily notified of health changes and students unable to travel can access them.

Having a similar cultural background to your counsellor doesn’t guarantee a positive experience. But removing the need to explain cultural experiences can vastly improve the support we receive. Universities’ failure to provide the necessary mental health support to BAME students is profoundly damaging. It’s high time for institutions to take active steps to improve counselling services and let BAME students know about them.

Yet, fundamentally, training for counsellors is never and should never replace lived experiences. To make universities’ mental health services truly inclusive, then they must be diversified to include more BAME practitioners and counsellors from LGBTQ+ backgrounds too. Their knowledge matches the needs students from these backgrounds may face and this will help more people feel better sooner.

Maliha Reza is a student at Royal Holloway, University of London. She tweets at @maliharez.

Photo credit: Pixabay, under Pixabay licence, with modifications

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