Activist Addresses Mental Health in Minority Communities

Dior Vargas, a Latina Feminist Mental Health Activist, addressed some of the difficulties and stigmas that surround communities of color when confronted with issues of mental illness during an event in Copley Formal Lounge on Feb. 29.

The event, hosted and facilitated by Bianca Uribe (COL ’18) and Xiomara Salazar (SFS ’18) of the Student of Color Alliance and Center for Multicultural Equity & Access, outlined the unique struggles of many students of color concerning mental illness at Georgetown University and other universities around the country.

The dialogue aimed to identify cultural and institutional issues and solutions that Georgetown, other universities and members of the community could implement in order to remedy these problems.

Vargas named the failure to discuss mental health within communities of color, which can make people struggling with these issues feel scared and vulnerable, as a central issue.

“It’s something where we don’t want to talk about it at all. There’s no mention of it,” Vargas said.

Uribe said students of color encounter complex obstacles in trying to find resources to cope with mental illness.

“It’s really hard to find mental health resources, no matter what your background is, but with students of color, there’s a whole other spectrum of things that, for some reason, a lot of us don’t see, that’s being ignored,” Uribe said.

According to Vargas, being a student of color intersects with other characteristics, including class, which may contribute to a lack of available resources.

“A lot of us are immigrants. A lot of us are lower-class or lower-income,” Vargas said. “Many of these students are first generation students, and that carries a lot of pressure. There’s the lack of money that they have to pay for counselors that might work within the institution and also the ones that might be off campus.”

Vargas, who created the People of Color Mental Illness Photo Project, consisting of photos of people of color with mental illnesses to combat the media’s lack of representation of such groups, said there is a lack of diversity and representation of people of color when talking about issues of mental illness.

“A lot of students of color, when they’re entering into a space of higher education, they’re usually the minority, and they feel uncomfortable seeking help and reaching out to people,” Vargas said. “There’s also a lack of understanding that a lot of students in intensive institutions are pretty homogenous.”

According to Vargas, mental health professionals who work with students of color also tend to be white and upper-middle-class. Vargas said this lack of diversity contributes to challenges in patient retention.

“It’s important to see a familiar face, and it’s important to have someone who can understand you and speak your language,” Vargas said.

One of the policies Vargas said has significantly improved mental health support systems in other universities is the implementation of mental health training programs for all campus employees, including campus police, faculty, staff and Resident Advisors.

“In terms of what’s happening on other campuses, engraining training programs has been very important and successful,” Vargas said. “It’s important that everyone has that training so that they can be ready to support students.”

Vargas said it’s important that universities not let a lack of resources prevent them from introducing mental health programs.

“Creating spaces focused solely on mental health and allocating resources to them is important. I understand that these things cost money, but I think there are ways to do it,” Vargas said.

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