Prioritizing culture and colour in mental health services

On Jan. 30, many McGill students’ social media feeds will overflow with posts tagged with #BellLetsTalk. An initiative started by the telecommunications company to increase awareness about mental health, Bell’s “Let’s Talk” event is a day when people can use their social media platforms to raise money for mental health awareness by using the designated hashtag. This campaign may resonate—positively or not—with the increasing number of McGillians turning to counselling services for support with mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Accessing care can be even more difficult for students of colour at McGill, who encounter unique obstacles when seeking care. Language barriers, therapist-patient disconnects, and lack of access to ethnically-diverse counsellors all hinder students’ access to necessary care.

Students of colour living in predominately-white cities often experience difficulties finding counsellors who understand their experiences, and seeking help outside of the university’s healthcare system is not always a viable option. International students, for example, may have to pay out-of-pocket for a counsellor of the same demographic, even incurring travel costs if the counsellor is located beyond the downtown Montreal area. It is imperative that McGill offers students the option to be counselled by someone of the same background, as the patient may find it easier to discuss cultural issues if they feel that their therapist can relate to them or at least understand them.

As a South Asian woman, depression and anxiety were not words I heard often while growing up. The negative stigma surrounding mental health issues in many Asian cultures stands in stark contrast with the emphasis that the Western world places on mental well-being. Cross-cultural counselling skills are crucial considering the growing diversity not only of McGill, but of Canada as a whole. The importance of therapists’ cross-cultural knowledge for the quality of patients’ care is increasingly well-recognized: For example, the Canadian Psychological Association has established a list of resources for therapists treating recently-arrived Syrian refugees.

Language barriers may also arise between patients of colour and therapists. Canada is a diverse country, with over 200 languages spoken nationwide. Students whose first language is not English or French may struggle to communicate their precise feelings to their therapist, affecting the counselling and treatment they receive as a result. The option to receive psychotherapy in one’s native language can encourage students to actively seek mental health care, allowing for greater and more effective communication between a counsellor and their patient.  

Ensuring that every student is properly accommodated and cared for requires looking beyond treatment methods alone. Making sure that students of colour on campus feel comfortable seeking assistance in a way that also adheres to their cultural perspective can improve mental health care at McGill. Altering the approach to mental health care is at McGill’s discretion. The equitable solution to the relative inaccessibility of mental health services is to incorporate cross-culture counselling methods and a higher diversity of counsellors to abolish the unique barriers students of colour can face when seeking mental health care.

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