LGBTQ+ students contend with obstacles to mental healthcare in Walla Walla

Abby Main, Staff Reporter

While the trauma of living through the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased general demand for mental healthcare in Walla Walla, LGBTQ+ Whitman students are just one demographic for whom locating resources may prove challenging.

LGBTQ+ youth are at significantly increased risk for depression, anxiety and substance abuse, making the demographic particularly vulnerable during a time that has exacerbated mental health struggles.

Senior Koby Haigerty [all pronouns] described their experience with Whitman’s mental health resources as “incredibly hit or miss,” while noting that the Counseling Center has since been restaffed.

“I had to leave the school for health and safety reasons for a semester, and I went into intensive outpatient care in Portland,” Haigerty said. “There, I learned basically what good therapy was and what good behavioral healthcare is, and I got my standards set at what this bar should look like when it comes to working with a patient and prescribing them [medication].”

Based on that experience, Haigerty wishes the Counseling Center would expand its approaches to therapy by teaching a variety of different skills and strategies and by offering group therapy.

Throughout this experience, Haigerty has also been uncovering their gender identity.

“I came to Whitman as a [cisgender] straight male, and I am now very much just a queer person through and through, as I’ve realized,” they said. “The root of a lot of different weird facets of mental illness for me is definitely rooted in that, and just in body shit and other stuff. And then, when you talk about that with therapists who don’t have any kind of understanding of any of it, you kind of make a weird silence in the room sometimes. Especially on a campus where I don’t feel safe necessarily wearing a dress around unless I’m going to an explicitly queer space, it can be hard.”

There are, however, some resources available both at Whitman and in the greater Walla Walla area.

Nick Duran Fair [he/they], a counselor at Whitman’s Counseling Center said, “I think that we’re used to feeling so marginalized here in this part of the state that it might be hard to see that there is community and there are some resources available and they are growing.”

At Whitman, resources include the affinity clubs PRISM and Queer Trans Students of Color (or QTSOC), as well as the Counseling Center.

Duran Fair has also been collecting local resources for LGBTQ+ students. The list includes Blue Mountain Heart To Heart, an organization — headquartered in Walla Walla, Kennewick and Clarkston — focused on health for marginalized communities in rural areas; Planned Parenthood; Community Pride Walla Walla; Triple Point, for those 13-18 years old; Spectrum Counseling and two faith-based groups: Haven Fellowship and Open Door Fellowship.

Even with resources available, challenges remain. Haigerty, for example, cannot fill prescriptions in Washington with the same insurance they used in Oregon.

“[This switch] has happened two or three more times going back and forth, and for the last three years, I’ve been off medication because of that. I’ll have a month and a half where I can potentially set up relationships with someone [who can prescribe medication], and then I have to leave.”

For students like first year Jack Ray [he/they], just knowing that affinity groups like PRISM exist at Whitman is a comfort. However, in contrast to the generally affirming feel to campus, he remarked on his apprehensiveness outside of Whitman.

“There is safety and security [on campus],” they said. “And when you step outside of that, it’s daunting. I’m sure that there are a lot of people who also have that [supportive] mindset, but it’s not as guaranteed. I don’t immediately go into interactions trusting that that’s true, whereas here [at Whitman] I’m pretty comfortable talking to anybody.”

“That’s a bit riskier,” Haigerty, who says he is on the autism spectrum, responded when asked about seeking resources like therapists outside of Whitman. 

“I don’t often experience real fear. Like real, actual, raw fear. But going in [to] a town that I’ve lived in for four years and yet is still kind of strange to me in some places [and being] by myself in a place that I’m not necessarily sure is a safe place for me — that’s the most afraid I’ve ever been at some points in my life,” Haigerty said. “And that’s partially irrational because more likely than not nothing bad is gonna happen to me there … But the fact that that [fear] even exists at all is just—at least for me and I’m sure for other folks, too, who suffer from similar things — a huge deterrence to even try.”


National Resources

Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800)-273-8255

Trevor Lifeline for LGBTQIA+ Youth: (866)-488-7386 or text START to 678-678

Trans Lifeline: (877)-565-8860