Nurturing mental wellness for students with disabilities

March 22, 2024 | San Diego Community College District

In the complex tapestry of college life, the importance of community cannot be overstated. For students, finding a sense of belonging amidst academic rigors and social dynamics is crucial for growth and well-being. For students with disabilities, this sense of belonging can be elusive, often overshadowed by stigma, ableism, and other unique challenges.

Lupita Lance wears a royal blue blouse and a black cardigan. She is outside, in front of a palm tree
Lupita Lance, DSPS Counselor at San Diego City College

As vital as it is for students with disabilities to be included in all academic environments—classes, organizations, and campus events—it's just as essential to be able to connect with other disabled students who share similar perspectives and experience similar obstacles. This need for camaraderie and disability-specific peer support is a recurring request among students who utilize Disability Support Programs and Services (DSPS). HeartInMind aims to answer that call.

A districtwide partnership between DSPS offices, HeartInMind was established to increase awareness and support around the unique mental health needs and experiences of students with disabilities. Leading the charge for this initiative is Lupita Lance, a DSPS counselor at City College with nearly twenty years professional experience supporting students through their academic and personal journeys, including basic needs, medical, and emergency assistance. Lance’s expertise lies in her holistic approach, recognizing the multifaceted needs of students and providing tailored support to address them.

"The need for support outside of therapy is an ongoing theme that comes up in most of the spaces I work with as we learn how to better support our students," said Lance. 

A Pivotal Intersection

While DSPS offices, Disability Clubs, and other student services at each college offer many avenues of support for students with disabilities, HeartInMind is unique in its focus on addressing mental wellness through a disability lens. This intersection is pivotal, considering statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which reveal that adults with disabilities report mental distress 4.6 times as often as those without disabilities. 

Above all, Lance is dedicated to anchoring HeartInMind in each participant’s lived experiences. The project is not therapeutic in the clinical sense, but rather a casual virtual space where students with disabilities are empowered to build community and assist one another in developing vital self-advocacy skills to address prevalent issues facing students within the disability community.

“Ableism is a big challenge for students with disabilities,” said Lance. “The widespread assumption that we all have the same talents and needs creates an environment of isolation if we don't feel we fit the mold. We need to remind ourselves that we all need help from time to time, and that it is okay to reach out and ask for support. This will help avoid isolation and help all students, especially students with disabilities, not feel obligated to disclose all that is going for them but instead, feel empowered to reach out to get the support they need when they need it.”

From Stigma to Superpower

Central to HeartInMind's efforts are weekly virtual "Heart Chats" geared toward providing an open and nurturing space for students to explore topics relevant to their mental well-being. This support is open to all SDCCD students with a disability (apparent or non-apparent), regardless of DSPS status. 

Each meeting revolves around themed topics and discussion prompts (view this semester’s full schedule), yet students retain the freedom to steer the conversation in whichever direction they deem most beneficial. 

“This space was created to provide a place for students to come and share or ask about anything that is going on for them either in class or outside of class,” said Lance.

Through this project, Lance aims to flip the script on stigma, transforming the idea of seeking support from a perceived weakness into a celebrated superpower that is essential for self-care and mental wellness. 

“Listening to students voicing the hardships they go through and expressing frustration around feeling unheard reminds me how important it is to provide a space for them to share, ask, or just feel part of a community where we normalize asking for help,” she said.

Getting Involved

In essence, HeartInMind is more than just a support program; it's a testament to the power of community care. We asked Lance how students can get involved:

“Students enrolled at any of the SDCCD campuses can participate by simply joining any of our weekly Zoom meetings, Wednesdays at 2pm. I encourage you all to join and share ideas about how we can support your learning, in and outside the classroom.”

We look forward to the growth of this student-driven project! Be sure to follow HeartInMind on Instagram for weekly affirmations and updates! 


Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

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