The Student Counseling Center and the Galerstein Gender Center are innovating new ways to ensure LGBT+ students have equitable access to mental health care.
By Katherine Corley
Population Health Scholar
University of Texas System
Dual Degree Master's Student in Journalism and Global Policy
UT Austin Moody College of Communication & UT Austin LBJ School of Public Affairs
At UT Dallas, the Student Counseling Center and the Galerstein Gender Center have teamed up to offer innovative opportunities to access mental health care for students who identify as LGBT+. According to a 2017 UT System survey, approximately 11% of UT Dallas students identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or an alternate sexual orientation, while 3% identify as having a gender identity other than male or female.
Unfortunately, discrimination against LGBT+ individuals is common across the nation. A 2017 survey by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and National Public Radio found that a majority of all LGBTQ Americans say that they or a LGBTQ family member/friend have experienced multiple forms of discrimination. Additionally, a 2016 study found that LGBT+ individuals attempt suicide at markedly higher rates than the general population.
While the Student Counseling Center provides mental health services to all students, some LGBT+ students may not feel comfortable coming to the counseling center due to stigma and a variety of other concerns, said Dr. Kimberly Burdine, Director of Community Engagement at the Student Counseling Center. Burdine, a psychologist, said that one of her passions is finding new ways to reach out to students who often have experienced discrimination, increasing their need for mental health support.
The Student Counseling Center created a Gender and Sexuality Consultation Team who meets with students who identify as transgender or gender nonbinary and provides services as needed, particularly focusing on support for pursuing hormone therapy, surgery, or legal name/gender marker change. The Student Counseling Center additionally offers mental health support groups for LGBT+ students—these support groups meet at the Gender Center, which allows LGBT+ students to access mental health services in a space explicitly created for them.
The Gender Center and Counseling Center also helps to create an accepting and inclusive campus culture through the LGBT+ Education, Advocacy, and Programming Initiative (LEAP). The initiative offers the Safe Zone Ally Training, a five-hour training provided six times a year for faculty, staff, students, and community members.
“Safe Zone Ally Training is a campus-wide initiative geared towards building a community of allies and advocates to provide support for LGBT+ students, faculty, and staff,” said Dr. Brittany Escuriex, Diversity Training Coordinator at the Student Counseling Center.
The Gender Center’s playfully-named CommuniTEAs offer students, faculty, and staff yet another opportunity to build positive connections over—you guessed it—tea. Organized by Assistant Director for Women’s & Gender Equity Programs Jacqueline Prince, each monthly meeting spotlights a different issue and provides a “brave space” for open conversation. Each event has a featured speaker with expertise in the topic. For instance, February’s meeting, “Living in the Intersections,” honored Black History Month with Dr. Burdine facilitating a space to explore the sometimes-conflicting experiences of people who identify as both Black and queer and/or trans. Both Escuriex and Burdine have been speakers at the event, another instance of the close collaboration between the Student Counseling Center and Gender Center.
The Gender Center and Student Counseling Center’s newest collaboration is ‘Culture Of Equity Training’, a campus-wide initiative geared towards building a community of “Champions” and advocates for students, faculty, and staff. Similar to the structure of Safe Zone Ally training, Culture of Equity works to educate and empower people to dismantle sexism and misogyny. Culture of Equity is set to launch in Fall 2019.
While the Student Counseling Center and the Gender Center continue to innovate new offerings to support LGBT+ students, their efforts to create a safe, inclusive environment at UT Dallas have already gained national recognition. Matt Winser-Johns, Assistant Director of LGBT+ Programs at the Gender Center, works closely with the Campus Pride Index, a nonprofit providing a national benchmarking tool to help universities measure, in a variety of categories, how LGBT+ friendly their campus is.
“It essentially produces a report card for your campus,” Winser-Johns said. “In May 2018, we were upgraded to a five star out of five star rating.” As of April 2019, UT Dallas is the only university of the 11 participating universities in the “Southwest” category to earn Campus Pride Index’s top rating for LGBT+ friendly campuses.
“We’re really trying to impact and shift the culture so that every environment that students encounter on the campus is conducive to mental health,” Burdine said.
Both the Student Counseling Center and the Gender Center want to expand the notion of health care to include the importance of social justice and equity.
“Systemic and chronic oppression damages health at every level,” Escuriex said. “Equity work is health care work—it improves the health of individuals, the health of systems, and the health of our campus community.”