As more states move to eliminate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programming, there is one consideration that should be placed above political ideology: student mental health. No matter how sensitive or controversial an issue is, student counseling centers on college campuses see to students’ mental health needs without judgement, and this is true for any issue. Yet new laws recently passed by the 88th Texas Legislature reflect a very specific point of view which threatens to compromise what the data show are best practices in college mental health.
The first law is Senate Bill 17, which prohibits public colleges and universities from having diversity, equity, and inclusion offices and policies. It specifically states that these schools cannot conduct any “training, programs, or activities designed or implemented in reference to race, color, ethnicity, gender identity, or sexual orientation…” When SB17 was introduced, it included an exemption for “health services provided by licensed professionals at an institution of higher education.” This part of the exception was removed, which was surprising to those of us in college mental health.
Health care professionals need to talk about and provide outreach specific to race, ethnicity, and gender identity. The Texas State Occupational Code even requires licensed mental health care providers to obtain bi-yearly Continuing Education Units on multicultural issues. This is because appropriate interventions address identity. Senate Bill 17 allows schools to focus on first-generation students, students with low-income, or students in underserved populations. However, students do not define their identity by these concepts, and many mental health concerns relate to identity.
This is particularly concerning given the mental health crisis we continue to combat. The majority (73%) of college students reported moderate or severe psychological distress in 2021, according to the National College Health Assessment, and according to the National Healthy Minds Study, 60% of college students reported experiencing one or more mental health challenges in the last year.
Meanwhile, experts like Sara Abelson, PhD, MPH, Assistant Professor and Senior Director at the Hope Center at Temple University, present significant research showing that sense of belonging in schools in general, and in college in particular, is protective for adolescent mental health and acknowledging and valuing one’s identity is a strong predictor of belonging. Lack of perceived belonging is associated with a host of negative psychological outcomes and is a critical risk factor for suicide. Conversely, strong sense of belonging has been shown to be a predictor of flourishing (or positive mental health) (Fink, 2014), particularly among African American college students. (Mounts, 2004).
Senate Bill 17 is not only at odds with what the data show is effective, it is confusing and difficult to accommodate given other mandates such as the recent passage of House Bill 906. This bill requires that institutions of higher education provide students with information about mental health services and suicide prevention efforts on campus. This information must include education about “appropriate interventions” for a person considering suicide. Since it’s well established that individuals of various races, ethnicities, gender identities, and sexual orientations have higher rates of suicide, suicide prevention efforts need to address these groups. However, according to Senate Bill 17, providing direct outreach for these domains on campus might be perceived as excluding other students, so many counseling centers’ staff are thinking that they won’t be allowed to do this.
The 88th legislature did not intend to, and does not want to, hinder the ability of licensed health care providers to prevent possible suicides, or any other negative outcomes, on campus. Some might argue that there’s no contradiction between Senate Bill 17 and House Bill 906. I can attest that many directors of student counseling centers are confused, if not deeply concerned. If anything, clarification is needed about what licensed health care professionals can do regarding interventions that are specially designed for high-risk groups. The fact that health-care providers were originally exempt from Senate Bill 17 indicates that there was, at one point, awareness for these concerns.
Eric Wood currently serves as the Director of Counseling & Mental Health at Texas Christian University. With over 16 years of experience in college mental health, Dr. Wood founded TCU’s innovative Comprehensive Collaborative Care Model and has helped train over 100 colleges and universities to implement various aspects of the nationally recognized program. Dr. Wood serves on LearningWell's Editorial Board.
 Anderman, 2002; Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Fink, 2014; Haas, Silverman, & Koestner, 2005; Osterman, 2000
 Choenarom, Williams, & Hagerty, 2005; Galliher, Rostosky, & Hughes, 2004; Hagerty, Williams, Coyne, & Early, 1996; Pittman & Richmond, 2008; Van Orden et al., 2008; Freeman et al., 2007; Gummadam, Pittman and Ioffe, 2016