An Insider’s View on Mental Health by Sean Cardinalli
In this time of grave American social injustice, questions and concerns arise not only about cultural and institutional disparities, but also psychological ones. Our conversations about black folks’ health and well-being encompass not only broadly-scoped social investigation, but also individual focus. The mental health of victims of racism and brutality is something Dr. Stephanie McIver of the University of New Mexico is keenly aware of, concerned about, and working on.
Dr. McIver is a clinical psychologist and the Director of Counseling Services at UNM. She is the first black clinician at the department, ever. Considering the nation’s attention to racial tensions, she acknowledges a duality to her role but is comfortable with it as a fact of life. “It’s interesting being in this position as a black woman on campus and being in the mental health field, because I think of [racial tension] from a clinical perspective, observing it in the constituents we serve, and I’m experiencing it personally. As a member of society, I’m definitely aware of my own personal reactions, stress, and anxieties about having a black son in America and having to equip him, inform him, prepare him. So that’s a part of my daily consciousness, my own personal reaction to it.”
“And then, professionally I’m aware—and have been in various points of my career—as to how my identity is perceived. I’m really good at compartmentalizing and ignoring it to do my job. I don’t tend to personalize things.” But that compartmentalization doesn’t mean in the least that Dr. McIver is unmoved by the circumstances around her professionally; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Her career has been marked by responding passionately to the particular needs of her constituents at any given time and place.
Early in her career, Dr. McIver saw a lot of recidivism, “a tremendous repeat of individuals and families,” visiting the emergency room. This was in Fulton County outside Atlanta, where the “majority [of patients] were impoverished and didn’t have health care.” Most families didn’t have access to a primary care physician and so were forced to use the ER. The experience cracked Dr. McIver’s naïveté about the American health-care system. It was then that she became “fascinated by specific clinical issues which got exacerbated by life stress at a frequent rate for that population,” which was, in that ER, by far, poor and African American.
At present, Dr. McIver does “have a particular role that the staff and university are aware of, outreaching to African American students on campus” and, even more specifically, to black women on campus. She can’t separate her blackness from her role as a psychologist. That said, Dr. McIver proudly “serve[s] the entire student population really well. I have this tremendous, deep love and admiration for humanity in general and feel honored to be available in this way to all students. It’s incredible to be able to sit down with someone completely different from me on almost every variable and reach this really deep therapeutic rapport. I have terrific therapeutic relationships with people across every dimension of identity and that’s such a terrific thing.”
Under the watchful eye of Dr. McIver, UNM’s Counseling Services offers a broad schedule of workshops and events to participate in, which cover matters of concern to most students, like time management, anxiety and depression coping skills, positivity cognition, and assertiveness training. She’s rightfully proud of the student veterans’ retreat, which this year is preceded by an all-day benefit at Nexus Brewery on October 2nd. The retreat came to be when, around 2012, the campus started seeing an increase in veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq to join the UNM student population. The worldwide economic implosion forced a “critical mass” of over 1,000 veterans to seek continuing education instead of employment, but their class retention rates were oddly low.
“It wasn’t the intellectual, organizational, leadership, or goal-directedness piece that was the issue. [Student veterans] outshined traditional students in that respect. But it was the emotional piece of adjusting to a peer group they could no longer relate to” that needed attention. Coupled with the incidences of post-traumatic stress disorder, its accompanying sleeplessness, and adjusting back to civilian life, and the veterans’ hopes for matriculating were significantly damaged. Also, there was the nationwide controversy of mismanagement at the upper levels of the federal Veterans Affairs department. So Dr. McIver and her staff created the retreat as a transitional aid.
Beyond the retreat, they opened an outreach program which proactively sought out the veterans who didn’t have ready access to their rightful VA services, which is especially exacerbated by New Mexico’s rural population profile. (Some VA service accessibility is dictated or limited by proximity to a VA outpost.) The outreach team is mobile and more readily wades through bureaucracy; they are smaller and have an easier intake process. Thus, local veterans’ more specific needs were addressed and responded to.
As director of student mental health services, Dr. McIver has also seen more and more international students at UNM visiting her and her team. They’re “coming to us in a significant amount of distress saying, ‘I don’t want to be in America; I’m afraid all the time; I’ve been accosted.’” Many of the students have been Middle Eastern, Latin American, and African. “They’re inundated and traumatized by overexposure to our media and they’ve become very afraid. It’s already difficult for them to adjust to a foreign environment without us imposing nightmares upon them.”
Dr. McIver’s professional and personal concern for her students’ well-being is clearly evident and she’s worked hard to get where she is. She received her bachelor’s degree from Spelman College and her master’s and PhD in clinical psychology from Ohio State University. She specializes in cognitive behavior therapy, anxiety disorders, and serious mental health diagnoses. After finishing her clinical internship at UC Santa Cruz, she split her time for a number of years between Stanford University’s acute psychiatry unit and a small private practice. After a stint with the Department of Defense, she circled back home to Albuquerque where she was raised and won the job leading UNM’s Counseling Services.
In the last few years, Dr. McIver has been active in socially-conscious endeavors like the local AACETS initiative and is on the executive board of its offshoot, the New Mexico Black Wellness Coalition. Concern for others’ well-being and social justice is in her DNA, literally; her father is a well-regarded, retired surgeon who worked on soldiers wounded in the Tet Offensive; and her maternal grandfather, Lawrence Aaron Nixon, was a storied physician and civil rights advocate in El Paso.
Dr. McIver speaks calmly and seems tireless, but her work ethic and busy career schedule don’t preclude her from leisure. She makes space and time for seeing movies, reading casually (even if it’s several books at once), cooking with her children, and posting on Facebook as outlets. It’s important for her to decompress and she admits there’s a high burnout rate in behavioral health care direct service. When the news cycle includes another round of blue-on-black brutality or racial animus, she knows her patient pool—the student population—will react strongly to that negative stimuli, “and they’re saying that’s why they’re coming in, because they’re having a hard time coping with the reality of society.”
The campus knows Dr. McIver can be called upon for sessions to help process students’ grief, as it did following the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile this past summer. She is also very proud of the academic attention being paid to Black Lives Matter via Dr. Finnie Coleman’s course this fall and in other related forums. “I’m so thrilled about it and I’m glad the institution approves it. It says something meaningful, and I’m glad for the students who have an opportunity to be in [the class].” She’s also gladdened that the student attendance in the class is diverse; she notes that the campus resource centers for blacks, Latinos, and Natives are all in close proximity and appear to be in good communication with one another.
Accessibility to Mental Health Services
Where behavioral science and psychological therapy were once historically white, middle-class privileges, due especially to insurance limitations and economics, Dr. McIver is pleased the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has opened the option of mental health services to a far wider spectrum of people. The field isn’t the elitist bastion it used to be. Even the American Psychological Association is talking about links between cultural stressors specific to African Americans and the potential for a specific psychotherapeutic study and response.
In the last few years, for obvious reasons, the topic of black mental health and well-being has been given more attention; it has been more top-of-mind in academia and the media. It’s as if the larger discussion of these issues has finally caught up with the work Dr. McIver has been steeped in all along.
“My goal throughout all of my work, in general, was to make behavioral health services more accessible, more understandable, and more appealing even to populations that had never utilized it before.” She’s seeing, at UNM and across the mental health-care industry, a response to that increased access.
Dr. McIver has worked tirelessly to “outreach to people, to help them understand what they can expect when they walk through the door, [which is] not the stereotypical notion of Freud with a tweed jacket and pipe. That’s not really what it is, at all. If I succeed in doing that, and encourage people to walk in the door when they’re in distress, destigmatizing [behavioral health] for populations that were never utilizing the service before, then I will be very glad, and my work will have been well-done.”