Amid criticism about Oregon State University’s commitment to student mental health, the university is hiring four new mental health professionals.
Of the four new hires, two positions are closer to being filled: coordinator of Black and African-American student mental health and wellness, and coordinator of Indigenous student mental health and wellness.
Marcey Bamba, associate director of clinical services for Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, said it is critical for the university to hire mental health professionals who know standard Western approaches to mental health are not always helpful for students from different cultural backgrounds.
“It’s important that the wellness coordinator have a unique understanding of the impact of racial stress and systemic racism to support Indigenous and Black students on campus,” Bamba said.
Bamba is serving as the co-chair of the search committee formed to hire the coordinator of Indigenous student mental health and wellness.
Terrance Harris, director of the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center, said it’s important someone is hired to provide support for Black students when Black faculty and staff outside of counseling services are tasked with providing support in the absence of adequate institutional support.
Harris, who is a co-chair of the search committee for the coordinator of Black and African-American student mental health and wellness position, said historical mistreatment of Black people in medicine, and the resulting distrust from that, is important to recognize and address with improved representation.
“The CAPS team, as a department, are trying to advance (representation),” Harris said. “They hear the students, they hear the community, specifically the Black community and other communities that have come to step up and speak up and be like, ‘Hey, why isn’t there … any representation?’ (CAPS) understands the importance of that and the importance of supporting our students.”
Harris and Bamba said the new coordinators will offer clinical services, as well as serve in outreach roles.
“Counseling services is just one service, but students don’t always feel comfortable with accessing clinical services, so we want to be able to support them in their communities and spaces,” Bamba said. “Thus, the wellness coordinator will also provide outreach, advocacy and collaboration, and thus meet students where they are at in order to support their success at OSU.”
Harris reiterated that hiring for positions like this is a single step in addressing problems, rather than the totality of the solution.
“We don’t want anyone to get the idea this is the resolution to everything,” Harris said. “As we are in this social justice battle for equality and diminishing anti-Blackness as it shows up, we have to understand that this is a step in that direction to heal. You’re healing a wound, and a wound you can’t put a Band-Aid on.”
CAPS Director Ian Kellems said the hires have been planned for some time, although the timeframe was temporarily derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Kellems said the exact nature of the two remaining positions to be hired for hasn’t been decided but will be based on feedback from students. All four positions are expected to be filled by the start of the fall quarter.
Kellems said the impetus for hiring people in these roles in particular is recognition of the unique mental health needs of students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Kellems also said he feels the perspective of students who are critical of the university’s efforts should be heard.
“I think what’s really important is I don’t want the message to be that everything is fine, because it’s not,” Kellems said. “We’re always adjusting, improving, making changes — so we’re evolving."
Kellems and Steve Clark, vice president of university relations and marketing, emphasized the issue of mental health is a nationwide concern at universities and stressed the resources available to students with various mental health needs, including access to immediate services if a student is experiencing a mental health crisis.
One concern voiced during the public comment portion of a recent Board of Trustees meeting was that it took several weeks to schedule a counseling appointment. Kellems said he didn’t doubt the accuracy of the statement and said availability of appointments is subject to the level of need someone has, as well as their own schedule. Kellems said wait times also increase at certain times, like the start of fall quarter.
Kellems said the wait times OSU students have for therapy appointments are still shorter than the average wait times in the area. Kellems said the budget for CAPS has been increased by 59% since 2013, far outpacing the growth of enrollment, which he said is a sign of the university’s commitment to providing mental health services.
Clark stressed the university maintains several programs and groups for student support.
“CAPS is a very important part of OSU’s commitment to contribute to wellness and safety, and our efforts to address mental health and crisis needs among our students,” Clark said. “We have many important university departments that also support students in need: the Survivor Advocacy Resource Center, OSU’s Department of Public Safety and Student Health Services (SHS) are among others.”
K. Rambo can be contacted at 541-812-6091 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter via @k_rambo_.