In a county with 70% white residents, students of color turn to informal networks in place of institutional mental healthcare services

Abby Main, Staff Reporter

For students of color at Whitman, negative impacts on mental health while attending a predominantly white institution are exacerbated by the college’s location in a county where more than 70% of the population is white.

The lack of racial diversity in Whitman’s healthcare services compromises its usefulness for students of color. 

“Every identity actually needs a mentor,” said Associate Dean of Health and Wellness Rae Chresfield in an article in The Wire in March. “My focus has been on people of color and people who have been marginalized historically. I don’t know how easy it would be to get [mentors] to come to this location.”

As explored in Whitman So White’s April 5 episode, “Inaccessibility of Mental Healthcare at Whitman and Beyond,” the counseling center only has one counselor of color. But senior Nidhi Jaltare also sees this as an issue beyond hiring more staff members who are BIPOC.

“My biggest concern is that even if [Whitman] were to try to hire more BIPOC, we can’t really take care of them here because it’s just not that kind of environment,” Jaltare said. “All the POCs just kind of disappear. So it feels like even if we did allocate our resources to the right place, we need to do a lot of work internally before putting more people of color in these positions.”

Despite the lack of resources at Whitman for students who are BIPOC to seek mental healthcare, the resources in the greater Walla Walla community are often even more difficult to navigate and utilize. As elaborated on in an article by The Wire in March, mental healthcare resources in Walla Walla are severely limited, a situation worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“This is such an unconducive environment for [BIPOC] people to feel healthy,” senior Jaltare said of Walla Walla.

“It happens to so many of us where something happens and then we don’t want to leave our houses because we don’t really feel safe,” Jaltare said. “That just means that we’re stuck in an environment where, if you’re already feeling very stressed out, we’re just surrounded by these triggers that we don’t know what to do with. And a lot of my friends don’t go out alone downtown if they’re POCs. They don’t really feel good. It’s just not the kind of place where you want to go have a drink alone.”

On the podcast Whitman So White, Jaltare and hosts, junior Jasmine Razeghi and sophomore Elea Besse, noted the cyclical nature of this lack of basic security. Students who don’t feel safe cannot engage in some healthy routines that aid mental health, like going for walks in the neighborhoods surrounding campus.

This lack of safety also keeps students who are BIPOC from seeking help outside of campus.

“People don’t like the [Whitman] health center, but also most people think that that’s our best option compared to the options in the rest of the town,” Jaltare said.

Informal support networks also exist for students who are BIPOC at Whitman, though Jaltare wishes that access to mental healthcare did not need to be so reliant on student activism and organizations. 

“As much as I appreciate that I really enjoy the community, I feel like it’s not really our job to be doing these things,” she said. But in the absence of real institutionalized support, the BIPOC community has often had little choice. 

Another aspect of mental health for some students who are BIPOC is the lack of belonging which Jaltare feels as an international student. She described the emotional weight of events in India, such as the COVID-19 spikes, in addition to crises in the United States. 

“It’s just always the feeling of belonging nowhere but also being burdened with everywhere’s problems.”

Sunshine Alvarez De Silva, a junior and an RA living in the MECCA interest house, emphasized the variety of experiences among BIPOC at Whitman.

“Some people might find that being at Whitman was enough of a support just having that small group of people that sort of look like you instead of no people that look like you,” Alvarez De Silva said. “But some other people might not have that be the case, and they feel isolated.”

Resources for those people, according to Alvarez De Silva, are limited.

“I don’t know where I should turn to when I feel like I have nowhere to turn to because people are only interpreting me first and foremost by the color of my skin or the place where I came from,” said Alvarez De Silva.

Elea Besse is the Podcast Editor for The Wire.