system failure  ·  The Ubyssey

Through the looking glass: Barriers to recognizing yourself in a strained wellness system

“It can be really emotionally draining trying to explain the dynamic of your culture in relation to what you’re going through.”

Content warning: Self harm, overdose, suicide ideation

After suffering a panic attack during her cultural psychology final, Viola Chao’s professor told her she could retake her exam under one condition: she make an appointment with UBC Counselling Services.

Upon arrival, an assessor gauged her symptoms and Chao requested an Asian counsellor. She was told that the service did not have one.

After the assessment, it was a month before Chao could see a counsellor. In the meantime, she was left to manage symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, depression and emotions surrounding her grandmother’s illness on her own.

Jumping through hoops

The long intake process at UBC Counselling Services could mean waiting up to a month for an appointment, depending on the intensity of one’s symptoms, according to students interviewed by The Ubyssey.

Mikaela Joy, a fourth-year psychology and theatre design and production student, said the long waits and the initial paperwork required for screening felt invasive.

“When you first go into UBC Counselling, they sit you down and then all of a sudden you have pages and pages of forms ... all these questions essentially asking if you’re going to hurt yourself or someone else,” said Joy.

“It’s very stressful sitting in this quiet room with a bunch of strangers and having to disclose if you’re having suicidal ideation to a piece of paper.”

Once able to see a counsellor, some racialized students often have to navigate conversations with well-intentioned white counsellors who do not always understand the nuances of being a racialized person.

For Joy, this meant being intentional with how she presents herself in white spaces like UBC Counselling. While working with a white counsellor who she described as “lovely,” Joy still felt there was some level of her experience as a Black woman that the counsellor would never understand.

When seeking support, Joy had the added task of managing her emotions to circumvent stereotypes placed on Black women. “I don’t want to be the overdramatic Black woman or the sassy Black [woman],” she said.

“But I also need to be honest about the help that I need.”

Third-year biology student Rabiah Dhaliwal said her South Asian family plays a big role in her decision-making — which some counsellors can’t culturally relate to.

“It can be really emotionally draining trying to explain the dynamic of your culture in relation to what you’re going through,” said Dhaliwal, “and also sort of hard to get past the fact that there will always be these intrinsic biases and stereotypes about your culture from someone who can’t understand them.”

Dr. Benjamin Cheung, a lecturer in the psychology department, has seen how complex accessing mental health resources as a racialized student can be. In addition to dealing with their own struggles, Cheung said students from certain cultural backgrounds have to navigate stigma toward mental illness.

“Some of these communities can be very close knit ... so people will often talk to each other, share information about each other,” he said. “That also adds an extra layer of shame avoidance and honour preservation [while] wanting to make sure the family doesn’t lose face.”

Nothing replaces shared experience

When Renéyah Brown, a first-year bachelor of international economics student, lost a family member to an overdose, she visited UBC Counsellors in Residence but felt “weird” sharing her experiences with her older white counsellor.

“There [are] a lot of aspects of my life that are normal to me, but might not be normal to people who are not Black or people who [came] from money,” she said. “I felt like there was a wall between me and the residence [counsellor].”

Chao requested an Asian counsellor, hoping that she would have an easier time fostering a connection with someone of her own ethnicity. She described a high school experience involving a counsellor who, while professional, appeared “taken aback” by cultural dynamics that were normal for Chao. Now, she feels most comfortable with an Asian counsellor.

Cultural competency training for non-racialized counsellors is important, explained Cheung, but not enough. There’s a big difference between knowing about a specific experience, especially when related to race and culture, and actually identifying with it.

“I would wager that anyone who has an actual emotional connection and identification with those experiences would be better equipped and better served to help someone walk through those experiences, than someone who merely has some vague academic understanding of that experience,” he said.

“We connect with people with whom we can identify,” said Cheung. “We see ourselves in them.”

We’re gonna need a new prescription

Dr. Cheryl Washburn, director of Counselling Services at UBC, said in a written statement that the university is aware of the concerns regarding BIPOC health accessibility, and will be meeting with the AMS to “discuss this in more depth and consider exploring possible collaborative options.”

“It’s very important to me and the university that these issues are addressed holistically and with student input first and foremost.”

Students and faculty interviewed for this story suggested that diversity involves having counsellors who are members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, disabled and neurodiverse to represent our student body.

“I genuinely think that we should be striving to have counsellors and support staff that are absolutely as diverse as possible,” said Cheung.

Chao said we need more counsellors in general. “I remember looking at the list, and there [were] only like …16 to 20 counsellors at UBC Counselling and I’m like, how many students do we have at UBC?”

According to the faculty and staff directory, the university ’s counselling service currently has 19 members of staff consisting of psychologists, counsellors, social workers and wellness advisors.

Though racialized students have struggled to receive adequate representation while seeking support, most agreed that the service ultimately helped alleviate stress, and in some cases gave them the tools to better cope with future emotional obstacles.

Joy explained that it is important to acknowledge spaces that racialized students create for themselves as they pursue support and a sense of belonging.

The spaces that Black students have cultivated to support their own mental wellbeing, she explained, should not be neglected from the university’s wellness narrative.

“Non-Black students love highlighting Black trauma more than they like celebrating Black joy,” said Joy.

“One Black club is a good start, but everything that Black students have has been created by Black students, for Black students, and it would be great if the university could reach down and support that more.”