AU’s new wellness program criticized for leaving out LGBTQ+ community
New Wellness Center scrutinized for its one-size-fits-all, non-extensive approach to LGBTQ+ mental health care
American University’s new Center for Well-Being Programs and Psychological Services — a revamped version of the former Counseling Center and former Health Promotion and Advocacy Center — is a new service on campus that some students say has not embodied its proposed “affirming space” and “equitable mission” goals.
The former counseling center, which faced campus-wide complaints as students struggled to find adequate and supportive care, raised concerns that led to the remodel that some AU community members are still dissatisfied with.
D.C. has the largest percentage of LGBTQ+ residents per capita in the United States, according to a study from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. AU is also known as the most liberal school in the country. The University is being criticized by many on campus for falling short in providing services for its LGBTQ+ community.
The new center was announced on Aug. 19 and is now called the Center for Well-Being Programs and Psychological Services. Some LGBTQ+ faculty and students are unhappy with the new services and are concerned with the Center’s failure to highlight LGBTQ+ care, representation and adequate resources.
“You can revamp it as much as you want, but if you’re still not meeting the needs of LGBTQ+ people then it doesn’t do anything; you’re just wasting money and time,” said Rohan Singh, a junior in the School of International Service and the treasurer of AU Pride.
Students who hold marginalized identities need a wide variety of well-being resources and undergo significantly higher mental health adversities compared to others, according to research by the American Psychiatric Association. It found that LGBTQ+ individuals are more than twice as likely as heterosexual men and women to have a mental health disorder in their lifetime and are three times more likely to experience depression, anxiety and drug abuse compared to others.
About 21 percent of Generation Z Americans — those born between 1997 and 2003 — identify as LGBTQ+, according to a study from Gallup. The majority of AU’s undergraduate class is Gen Z.
The Center, which offers an extensive plan of campus-wide mental health resources, groups LGBTQ+ people into one category near the end of a list of its services. The center states that this category is designed for “students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and other students navigating their sexual and/or gender identity.”
Allen Flint, a sophomore in the School of Communication, said there should be support groups for specific identities, as “being a lesbian or trans or ace are all different experiences,” and that the program shouldn’t have made a single group that “overlooks the considerable needs of individual LGBTQ+ students.”
Flint said LGBTQ+ people aren't a monolith, and there are a wide variety of identities within the community. He said he is disappointed in the one LGBTQ+ therapy group provided by the Wellness Center, which is “not enough.”
Singh said the University does not do enough for LGBTQ+ students, noting the approach is insensitive and disconnected from the individualized needs of each LGBTQ+ person since they are not all the same.
“In terms of understanding LGBTQ+ people as individuals with needs and the intermixing of these various identities is not covered at all by the program, it’s very much a one-size-fits-all approach,” Singh said.
“There are other spaces at AU that have supportive groups for that community,” said Jacquelin Darby, the director of well-being outreach and prevention services at the Center. “If we can’t be that need, then maybe [the Center for Diversity and Inclusion] can for their coffee breaks or their first Fridays or other groups on campus where you can talk about your identity also off campus.”
But that need should be met by the new center, according to student critics who said that referring dissatisfied LGBTQ+ students to CDI further disregards the community’s demands for action.
Bo Belotti, the administrative coordinator of Rainbow Families, a D.C. nonprofit organization offering resources and educational programs to local LGBTQ+ families, advocates for colleges to offer a variety of mental health resources to LGBTQ+ and marginalized communities and stresses the detriment of grouping them all into one category.
“Offering one kind of specialized care that lumps all LGBTQ+ people together is inherently problematic,” Belotti said. “A multitude of resources is necessary as different sub-communities within the queer community need different kinds of care. A trans person is going to have a very different experience of queerness and mental health needs than a lesbian woman would.”
LGBTQ+ college students with access to campus-individualized LGBTQ+ student services were 44 percent less likely to attempt suicide in the past year, compared to LGBTQ+ college students who had no access, according to a brief on college students from the Trevor Project. The study surveyed roughly 34,000 LGBTQ+ adolescents ages 13 to 24 across the U.S. and showed students with access to extensive college mental health services were 84 percent less likely to attempt suicide in the past year than those who had no access.
“We need a proliferation of services for multiply marginalized students,” said Tanja Aho, a professor in the department of Critical Race, Gender & Cultural Studies at AU. “The students I work with tend to be queer and disabled, queer and neurodivergent, queer and students of color, queer and first-[generation] students, and their experiences are not all the same just because they happen to be LGBTQ+.”
Aho said this one-group approach is unfortunately common, as schools “tend to under-resource multiply marginalized student groups,” and don’t “consider the numerous structural barriers that these students face.”
Aho highlighted the University’s tendency to implement a one size fits all attitude with decisions such as creating all-gender bathrooms. AU’s strategy was “to make one bathroom that serves everyone, but there are loads of LGBTQ+ students who need lots of bathrooms,” Aho said. “It is not okay to just create one bathroom that serves all of us; we need multiple different bathroom options.”
“We see this kind of reduction of all differences into one space, where it’s like, ‘Here’s this one group we’ll give you or here’s this one bathroom we’ll give you,’” Aho said. “It’s a cost-effective, harmful strategy that doesn’t serve the multiplicity of needs that multiply marginalized students across campus have.”
Aho noted how LGBTQ+ care is an add-on and not a foundational center of the program. They said this is problematic and stressed that the University is “treating the needs of multiply marginalized people” as “an addition to what is already there.”
Representation is a pressing concern for LGBTQ+ students and faculty regarding the new program, as the majority of the Center’s staffers are not LGBTQ+.
The district has a higher LGBTQ+ population than any other state in the U.S., at almost 10 percent, according to data from The Williams Institute. Around 11 percent of D.C. adults in the district said they identified as either lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, according to a recent report by the D.C. Department of Health.
Darby said four out of the 30 staffers at the Center identify as LGBTQ+. However, a 2018 study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information demonstrates mental health treatment is more effective for marginalized groups when it aligns with the client’s culture and clients feel represented by their therapist.
The intersection of “mental health and culture” needs to be “considered by the mental health professional” in order to “effectively engage” with patients, according to the study. The new center, however, seems to fall behind.
“Being LGBTQ is ostracizing and incredibly lonely,” Belotti said. “We need a lot more therapists who are queer and we need a lot more therapists who are of color — that representation matters a lot.”
LGBTQ+ youth who have access to spaces that affirmed their sexual orientation and gender identity had significantly lower rates of suicide attempts, according to research from the Trevor Project.
“The request for that space is kind of low,” Darby said. “We have difficulty filling that space up because students don’t sign up for the group. That’s why we’ve limited it to one LGBTQ+ group. People aren’t signing up.”
Although the vast majority of college students, almost 90 percent, stated their school provides mental health services, they reported access challenges like feeling uncomfortable going due to group-only resources, lengthy waitlists and privacy issues, according to research from the Trevor Project.
“Most counselors are not queer and don’t share the lived experiences of marginalized queer people,” Aho said. “Usually, when programs are one-size-fits-all, the one size was not developed from the perspective of multiply-marginalized students, like queer, neurodivergent, or disabled students.”
Darren Paul-Vance, executive director of Rainbow Families and mental health worker at
Rainbow Families who works in access to care, said it is not easy being able to afford services and that he “waives the cost entirely” or at least finds financial resources for LGBTQ+ clients who struggle to afford services annually.
“You must have money to be able to afford going to doctors,” Aho said. “[The Academic Support & Access Center] is continuously and chronically understaffed and underfunded, they also have a high staff turnover rate because we don’t pay our staff enough.”
ASAC works to “support the academic development and educational goals of all AU students” and says they are committed to promoting access for individuals with disabilities within the University's diverse community.
“AU stands out because it doesn’t do the best job at making mental health resources easily accessible and not intimidating,” said Marielle Dorsey, a sophomore in SIS. “No one wants to explain personal stuff to a stranger. We have such a large LGBTQ+ community; AU needs to make an effort to give a lot more resources to marginalized students.”
This article was edited by Nina Heller, Jordan Young and Zoe Bell. Copy editing by Isabelle Kravis, Leta Lattin, Sarah Clayton and Stella Guzik.