Susan Turell, Ph.D. to Advise SUNY System on Transgender Mental Health

Last December, Susan C Turell, Ph.D., director of mental health services at the Gender Wellness Center in Oneonta, joined the newly-formed Mental Health and Wellness Advisory Committee for the State University of New York (SUNY). This committee works with the SUNY System Chancellor's office to recommend and implement expansions of mental health and wellness services for all SUNY students.

The current committee is primarily concerned with three issues deeply affecting the world of on-campus mental health. First, the United States is currently experiencing a youth mental health crisis. This crisis has been building for years but has only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic and colleges are seeing dramatically increased demand for mental health services. Next, like many sectors, campus health systems are facing staffing and resource shortages. Finally, in a welcome positive development, there are new treatment model options thanks to telemedicine.

Turell is one of seven members joining the committee from outside the SUNY system in order to offer insights into specific—and many times overlapping—student constituencies that are often underserved in college mental health programs. Turell's experience at the Gender Wellness Center will inform the committee about caring for transgender and gender-nonconforming students. Other members will be able to speak to the specific needs of students of color and older students outside the typical college age range.

"I think those of us who went to college tend to think of college students as being like us," explains Turell. "We naturally default to whatever the 'like us' is. So we have to ask ourselves, what is that default? When we talk about student needs or plan a program, do our plans assume all our students are white, traditional age, and cisgender? These simple questions are a great start towards being inclusive and equitable."

College can be an especially pivotal time for students working through gender issues. "For many, this is a chance to leave misgendering behind," says Turell. "It's a new community where they can use their pronouns and names and live as their authentic selves. Others explore their gender identity and learn to interact socially. Exploration may include deciding if they identify as trans, or simply as their authentic gender. Socially, they may need support in how to respond when someone misgenders them."

Since challenges and their solutions look different at different schools, the other two-thirds of the group's members represent a cross-section of SUNY campus mental health programs. "All of the committee's guidance will be tailored by each school," says Turell. "They know their students and their institution's mission, and any policy or programs or training need to take those into account."

Overall, Turell finds her place on the committee a humbling responsibility. "The Gender Wellness Center's reputation brought me to this committee, so I'm there representing my whole team of colleagues," she explains. "And at the same time, I am representing people who identify as transgender or gender-nonconforming. I hope that I can give as close to an accurate voice of their needs and concerns as someone who is cisgendered can."

The Gender Wellness Center is part of Susquehanna Family Practice at FoxCare Center. Being embedded in a family practice allows the center to provide transgender-specific mental health, legal advocacy, research, education, and surgical services within a primary care setting.

The State University of New York (SUNY) system is New York's network of 64 university centers, university colleges, technology colleges, and community colleges. It serves nearly 1.3 million students.