The Wellness Center works to improve care for LGBTQ+ students

JADEN RICHESON, Special to The Denisonian—Denison may be a microcosm of the real world, but its issues reflect those of larger society — one of those issues being mental health.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness recorded that in the United States, 19.1% adults experienced mental illness in 2018; this is 47.6 million people, or 1 in 5 adults. While this number is striking, The Human Rights Campaign Foundation recorded that 1 in 3 adults who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual have experienced mental illness and that 40% of transgender people have attempted suicide in their lifetime.

Mental health, particularly for those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) students, is something that should be given proper resources on Denison’s campus, and administration within and outside of the Wellness Center in Whisler Hall is aware of this.

Maddie McKenney-Lydick ‘20 is a women’s and gender studies major from Boston who identifies as a non-binary trans person, and they have been going to counseling at Whisler since freshman year. When asked about the strengths of the Wellness Center in accommodating LGBT students, they said, “I thought it was good that they had a specific gender counselor for a bit; like I thought it was good that they had an identified one — that’s always comforting.”

However, this counselor is no longer at Denison. In fact, several counselors left at the beginning of this semester, including our only person of color counselor.

Dustin Brentlinger, the director of student health and wellness, says, “We had some critical losses right before school started that were very surprising to us. They were just better job opportunities to these people in their young careers. They left Denison not upset, but excited, because they were moving on to things that were more exciting to them.”

However, this meant that they had to hire new counselors right away; the Wellness Center has just brought in three new counselors to account for those who left.

Laurel Kennedy, the Vice President for Student Development, also shares her opinions about counseling for LGBT students on campus. She says, “I think our counseling staff is well equipped to work with LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer] students. I would say it has been an area of depth of training for a number of our counselors, and that’s been true for a while.” She believes Spectrum, facilitated space for students who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, gender non-binary or non-conforming, queer, questioning, intersex, or asexual, is a great group for LGBT people to have access to.

Jack Wheeler, a staff counselor and co-facilitator of Spectrum, said, “Each week, students are welcome to drop in during common hour for a casual lunch, games, and conversation with Phoebe Bentley (Denison’s Chaplain) and me (a licensed clinical social worker).” Kennedy believes Spectrum is a very positive resource for LGBT students; she says, “We can do one on one talk therapy, but there are elements of student experience that are actually better addressed in a group setting.”

When McKenney-Lydick is asked if they ever went to Spectrum before, they say yes — once during their freshman year. It was not very helpful for them. “It felt like a meeting… like an AA meeting,” they say. “It was like super weirdly set up, and we were in a circle, and everything was like oddly somber. And it was just like, ‘this isn’t fun…’” However, they do note that they only went once and had one experience in the group.

While there are strengths in the Wellness Center’s mental health program for LGBT students, there are also areas that could be improved upon.

“Some of the areas that I think we can improve on,” Brentlinger says, “is that we can do more within the community itself.” He would like to bring in more outside sources that specialize in providing mental health services to LGBT people in order to strengthen the community on campus. “If we focus just on counseling,” he says, “then what we’re saying is we’re always going to address the symptoms of a problem, as opposed to a problem.”

From the student perspective, it is great that counseling is is so accessible to students, and McKenney-Lydick stresses the importance of the fact that it is free for students; they say this is something the Wellness Center is doing right.

It is important to note that when it comes to health and wellness care, there is a large difference between the needs of LGB people and transgender people. Sexuality and gender identity are vastly different, creating vastly different needs.

Transgender students may need access to trans-specific healthcare, or may need letters of referral from a counselor to get horomone replacement therapy or gender confirmation surgery. Furthermore, there is terminology surrounding trans issues that may be unfamiliar to some people.

When asked if counselors are educated in both of these areas, Wheeler says, “All clinicians have completed Safe Zone training and many have attended local conferences and trainings for serving LGBTQIA+ students. That being said, we are open to referring students to nearby specialists if we feel that an issue is outside of our scope of practice. There are local providers, such as Equitas Health and Nationwide Children’s Hospital which specialize in treatments for people transitioning.”

Kennedy also mentioned actions taken on campus to make Denison a more welcoming place to transgender students such as: gender neutral housing for students of all years, gender neutral bathrooms on campus, name change policies, and hopefully soon, pronouns being listed on class rosters.
Although these do not have to do with the Wellness Center’s health and wellness program specifically, it does work to foster an environment on campus for trans students to feel seen by administration, which could positively affect their mental health.

McKenney-Lydick says that one thing that would make them more comfortable with counselors at Whisler is changing their language around certain subjects; for example, they think the Wellness Center would benefit from, “definitely phasing out words like preferred name and preferred pronouns.”

When Kennedy is asked what should be improved about counseling for LGBT students, she says that is a question for Denison students. Kennedy says, “We have received back the data from the National College Health Assessment, and it has been our practice when we have this data to disaggregate the data by different communities, and then to bring that to the students who represent those communities and to walk with them through all of that… we are starting to move through those conversations.”
Scoping out what LGBT students need is an ongoing conversation that can only happen if those students are willing to be open about their needs surrounding mental health and wellness, and communicating those needs with the Denison administration.