Counseling Without Representation

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Counseling Without Representation

Examining Counseling and Psychological Services’ history of diversity

by Channing Prend

In 1992, when Richard Eichler became the executive director of Columbia Psychological Services (CPS), the staff he inherited was 100 percent white and 100% heterosexual. “Making the staff more reflective of the diversity of the student body was one of my goals from the outset,” Eichler said. CPS hired its first counselor of color within Eichler’s first year as director.

Since 1992, CPS has more than doubled the size of its staff to include 44 clinicians. The most recent additions included eight new hires last semester. These new staff members represent a range of different races, nationalities, and gender identities. Both CPS and the Mental Health Task Force (MHTF), a student group that addresses issues of mental health within the university community, lauded the hirings as a success.

“The most heartening outcome of the latest round of hiring is that CPS seems to be genuinely interested in responding to the needs of students of marginalized identities and making sure that no student falls between the cracks,” said Brennon Mendez, CC ’17, MHTF member and former vice president of
Columbia Queer Alliance.

The recent Spectator article announcing the new staff members states that students on the MHTF
“met with health administrators a number of times over the last year to discuss the lack of diversity
among CPS clinicians” and that the staff “lacks the diversity to adequately address the needs of a large
and varied student body.” This sort of language seems to suggest that the recent hirings are CPS’s
first attempt to increase diversity within its staff, when in reality, the efforts have been ongoing since
the early 90s.

In fact, the Columbia University Record, a now defunct publication put out weekly by the Office of
Public Affairs, published an article in 1999 about the increased diversity of the CPS staff (by 1999 the staff
was 31% minority). The piece extols that CPS has “expanded, bolstering its expertise and making the
diversity of Columbia’s counselors more reflective of the diversity of the University’s student body.” This
rhetoric is remarkably similar to the recent Spectator article introducing the newest hires.

These similarities are unsurprising since issues of diversity and representation have been and continue to be relevant on campus. “For students of underrepresented minorities coming to an institution like Columbia it can be difficult to establish who you are within the community as a whole,” Saul Gomez, one of the newly hired clinicians, said. These challenges are just as pertinent today as they were in 1992.

Perhaps the most notable change since the ’90s is not the focus on diversity itself but the organized work of student advocates. Founded in March 2014, the MHTF has grown to include about 20 leaders from student government and several identity-based groups including the Black Students Organization, Asian American Alliance and CQA.

Last year, the MHTF initiated an identity-based concern survey that sought to evaluate student satisfaction with CPS. According to Mendez, the 172 anecdotal responses to the survey indicated that students of color, LGBTQ students, and Muslim students felt disproportionately underserved by the mental health resources on campus. The University Senate Quality of Life survey had similar results. 

“The ability to seek psychological treatment from someone who shares your identities should be afforded to all students regardless of race, gender, class, and sexuality,” Mendez said. He added that the survey results contained multiple accounts of students who felt more comfortable connecting with their CPS clinician when they were of a similar racial or ethnic identity. 

 

Echoing student concern, Archana Jain, one of the newly hired CPS staff, noted, “Particularly for students in therapy for the first time, it helps to have someone on staff who they feel understands them in some capacity whether those be cultural values or systemic issues.”

After conducting the survey, students on the MHTF approached CPS with their findings. According to MHTF member and University Senator Sean Ryan, CC ’17, Dr. Eichler was immediately receptive to their emails and ideas. “CPS generally wants the same things we do because they’re trying to help students,” Ryan said.

“In all of my activist efforts on campus, whether it be related to private prison divestment or anti-sexual
violence work, I’ve never had such a uniformly positive relationship with administrators as I have working with CPS,” Mendez said. This is a pretty bold claim coming from someone who has interacted with numerous university administrators in many different capacities. But Mendez maintained his statement,
noting that CPS has made many efforts to respond to and elicit student feedback, even inviting leaders from identity-based organizations to conduct workshops at their weekly all-staff meetings.

According to Eichler, one of the challenges has simply been making the community aware of the diversity within the staff, which he noted has been composed of at least 30 percent people of color since the late ’90s (this is more diverse than the national psychology workforce, which is over 80 percent white). “There’s been a real disconnect between perceptions and reality,” Eichler said. This disconnect is evident in the Spectator article from last semester, which presented the new hires as CPS’s first efforts to diversify.

After discussions with the MHTF, CPS created interest groups on their website to better convey information to students. These interest groups help students identify counselors with personal characteristics and professional interests that match their needs. For example, there is a multicultural concerns group, an LGBTQ concerns group, and a religious and spiritual concerns group. These groupings allow students to more easily search for clinicians specializing in specific areas. “There was no change in staffing to create those groups, but there was a change in the way we organize the presentation of the staff to the student body,” Eichler said. 

 

Diversity means little however, if the staff doesn’t have the professional skills to respond to students’ needs. As one Spectator commenter wrote on the article announcing CPS’s new hires, “We should be hiring the best people, and not necessarily a rainbow for a rainbow’s sake.”

Eichler however, responded that there was no tension between the desire to diversify the staff and
the need to hire the most skilled people. “If you get a great pool of applicants from a very diverse base,
then you’ll end up with diverse staff simply by hiring the most qualified people,” Eichler said. “Where the
issue of diversity comes in in the hiring process is how you do outreach and recruitment.”

In order to “cast a wide net,” Eichler mentioned that CPS advertises positions on listservs, websites and job boards that speak to all different communities including the National Organization of Black Psychologists and a National Organization of Latino Psychologists.

Eichler also noted the advantage of being located in New York City. “Especially for people from a variety of backgrounds, New York is a welcoming place,” he said. Kori Bennett, CPS’s first trans clinician, affirmed this statement, adding that location was a big consideration given hir identity. 

 

Despite the obvious importance of diversity, Eichler was careful to mention that CPS does not presume all members of a particular race, gender, or sexuality will want the same kind of treatment. “It’s not a given that people want to see someone of the same background,” he said. For example, Bennett said that most of hir caseload is not composed of students seeking identity-specific help on LGBTQ issues. According to Eichler, most students do not request to see a clinician who specializes in a particular area, although they have the opportunity to request this during the initial phone triage.

Moving forward, Eichler said that CPS will grow and change with the student body. Currently Gomez is working to start a men of color support group. CPS is also launching a quality assurance survey within the next month to help evaluate their service and gain student feedback (Eichler noted that members of the MHTF gave input on content and specific questions in the survey). “We’re here to serve you [the students], you’re our constituents, so it would be kind of absurd to not listen to what students say,” Eichler said. “It doesn’t mean we’ll always be able to deliver, but we try our best.”

The CPS staff, even if it continues to grow, will never be able to represent all of the identities in the student body. That said, the newest round of hires and the trajectory of the MHTF is progress worth commending. What’s more, CPS’s attitude towards student feedback should be a model for other parts of the University administration. The new hires are a tangible example of incorporating student input. But as stated by every single person interviewed for this story: “there’s always work to be done.”