Student Mental Health Care Barriers

7 min read

A Conversation with Youth United Founder, Chloe Sorensen

The Shrink Space was thrilled to interview Chloe Sorensen, Founder of Youth United for Responsible Media Representation and student at Stanford University. Youth United is an organization focused on educating people about the harmful effects of irresponsible media representation and encouraging members of the media to cover mental health in a hopeful and healing manner. We talk with Chloe about the mission of Youth United, her experience finding a therapist, and the barriers to accessing student mental health care.

Can you share a little bit about yourself and your interests in student mental health care?

My name is Chloe Sorensen; I’m 20 years old and currently studying psychology at Stanford University. I grew up in Palo Alto, California and got involved with mental health advocacy and suicide prevention efforts in my community following a string of suicides at my high school. For the last five years, I’ve been working on various initiatives to increase access to mental health care, decrease stigma, and change the narrative around mental health.

What’s your experience been like as a student trying to access mental health services?

I spent the first half of high school advocating for mental health care access but never actually accessing services myself–I think my awareness of the lack of resources combined with a feeling that my problems weren’t “big enough” kept me from seeking help, even though deep down I wanted to believe that I was worthy of care.

It wasn’t until a friend died by suicide in the spring of my junior year that I finally took steps toward receiving help. I remember walking into school the day after my friend’s passing and sitting down with one of my most trusted mentors. He talked me through my options and was ultimately able to connect me with a therapist whom I still see to this day. The decision to seek help changed my life in more ways than I can count, and I’ll forever be grateful to the people who connected me to care when I needed it most.

That being said, I also know that I was extremely fortunate to gain access to quality mental health care services relatively easily and quickly. So many people in my position are unable to access the resources they need, whether due to fear, financial burden, a lack of adequate mental health care providers, or other barriers.

I’ve also learned that not all therapists are going to be a good fit for my needs, and that it can take time to establish a good relationship where you feel comfortable and supported. Fortunately, the first therapist I saw happened to be a really good match for me–but when I was first starting college, my therapist went on leave for seven months, and I struggled to find a substitute who was a good fit. The first provider I saw as a substitute was not a good match for my needs and I spent months feeling frustrated and unsure of how to fix the situation. Ultimately, I decided to stick with it until my regular therapist came back–but when she went on leave again a year later, I was more adamant about finding a substitute that was right for me, despite the short-term nature of our relationship.

Many people give up on therapy after having a bad first experience, which is understandable and valid. However, I would encourage people to persevere and advocate for themselves as much as possible until they find someone who’s a good match, because when you find the right therapist, it’s like magic. The quality of the relationship you have with your therapist has a huge impact on what you get out of therapy, so don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. It’s always okay to give your therapist feedback or ask for another provider entirely.

How do you feel colleges are handling the increased demand for student mental health care? 

The unfortunate reality is that most (if not all) colleges lack adequate funding and resources to provide adequate mental health care to students. I think that this deficit is reflective of our society’s attitudes toward mental health, as it’s only been within the last few decades that mental health has been recognized as an important part of people’s health and wellbeing.

The good news is that many people–and young people especially–are speaking up and starting conversations about mental health, which helps send the message that mental health can and should be a priority. I’ve seen a lot of really incredible and inspiring student mental health advocacy on college (and even high school) campuses, and it’s making an impact. Stanford, for example, rolled out an expanded range of counseling and psychological services for students this year, in response to calls from student mental health activists. Mental health care reform almost always happens more slowly than we would like–but the fact that it’s happening at all is a big step in the right direction.  

How do you believe societal narratives impact access to student mental health care?

One of the biggest barriers preventing people from seeking mental health care is stigma. Oftentimes, people are afraid to ask for help because they are worried what people might think of them, or because their families or communities are not accepting of people with mental health challenges. The truth is that everyone faces mental health challenges from time to time, and it’s important to take care of our mental wellbeing in the same way that we take care of our physical health.

I think that there’s also still a misperception that there needs to be something “wrong” for you to seek help. Regardless of what’s on your mind, anyone and everyone can benefit from therapy.  The truth is, you don’t need to be diagnosed with a mental health disorder or have something horrible happen to you in order to be “worthy” of mental health care. Everybody is worthy of mental health care.

What do you see as the largest barriers to student mental health care access among your peer group?

I think the primary obstacle that prevents young people from accessing mental health care is a simple lack of resources. As a young person, it is extremely difficult to find mental health care services that are high-quality, affordable, and accessible. Colleges generally have counseling centers and other psychological resources, but these resources tend to be underfunded and understaffed. Very few (if any!) colleges in the US have enough mental health resources to adequately serve the needs of the entire student body.

Off-campus mental health services may offer higher quality care but can be harder to access without a referral and tend to be less affordable. If your health insurance doesn’t cover therapy, the out-of-pocket cost of accessing mental health care can be very steep.

For young people specifically, parents can add a layer of complexity to the process of seeking mental health care. If you are still on your parents’ insurance or under the age of 18, you will most likely need to involve them in the process of seeking care. This barrier makes accessing care especially difficult for people who have strained parental relationships or whose parents are not open to the idea of their child seeking mental health care.  

What improvements have you seen?

One organization that I’m particularly proud to be a part of is allcove, which is a chain of integrated youth mental health centers being developed by the Stanford Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing. Allcove centers, once opened, will serve as a “one-stop-shop” for the mental health needs of young people ages 12-25. These centers are designed with input from young people living in the communities they serve and will offer a range of free and low-cost health services including early intervention mental health services, substance use counseling, and even primary care. Allcove centers are designed by youth, for youth, and are intended to be a place where young people can easily access the help they need, regardless of how big or small their problem may feel.

What changes do you believe are needed to better support student mental health care access?

I think that oftentimes, when someone decides to seek mental health support, they have no idea where to start. Currently, there is no streamlined process for finding a mental health provider who is a match for your needs. If you’ve never been to therapy before, or if you don’t know what kind of services you’re looking for, it can be hard to know where to look. There’s potential for schools and universities to play a key role in connecting young people to mental health care, but right now most schools are unable to adequately meet the mental health needs of their students.  

It’s also essential to normalize mental health issues and stress the idea that it’s okay to ask for help. Even if you feel like your problems seem “small” in comparison to others, you are still deserving of attention and care. I think it’s important that we continue to build a culture of help-seeking and support, so that more people begin to feel comfortable with asking for help when they need it.

Can you share more about Youth United?

I founded my organization, Youth United for Responsible Media Representation, along with some friends from my hometown after a wave of suicides at our high school made national news. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for adolescents. Suicide “clusters”–where one suicide is quickly followed by others in the same community–are unfortunately not uncommon, with adolescent populations being particularly vulnerable.

As young people who have experienced such losses firsthand, we are acutely aware of the impact that media coverage can have on survivors in the aftermath of a tragedy. We noticed that when media outlets talked about the suicides at our school, they tended to sensationalize the issue and talk about mental health in a way that was more harmful than helpful. Decades worth of research on the phenomenon of “suicide contagion” has demonstrated a strong link between media coverage of suicides and suicide rates: when suicide stories are sensationalized and heavily reported in the media, suicide rates increase. Unfortunately, a great deal of media coverage of youth suicide deviates from safe reporting standards, putting young people at risk of further harm.

When stories about mental health are written responsibly, however, journalists and other members of the media can play a big role in helping communities heal and find hope.

Media suicide reports that focus on recovery and resilience are correlated with a decrease in suicide, such as stories about suicidal individuals who used coping strategies to handle adverse events, or stories that provide mental health resources and hope to readers. This phenomenon, known as “the Papageno Effect,” shows that responsibly written media reports of suicide have the potential to save lives, rather than contribute to further harm.

How can we learn more and get involved?

Our primary goal at Youth United is to spark healthier, potentially life-saving conversations about mental illness and suicide that help to change the narrative around mental health. We accomplish this goal by hosting educational workshops for journalism students, presenting to media professionals at conferences, and sharing stories on our blog.

We are always looking for young voices to feature on our website and Instagram, so if you have something you want to say about mental health, contact us at responsiblemediaforyouth@gmail.com or @responsiblemediaforyouth on Instagram!If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, we also run workshops and presentations for students, mental health care providers and media professionals.

Here at The Shrink Space our mission is to improve access to student mental health care. If you are interested in connecting with a mental health provider visit us at The Shrink Space. Check out this post to learn more about how we help students and universities streamline the off-campus referral process.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *