Rachel Brenner is aiming to reduce the stigma felt by individuals seeking mental health support, specifically for those in the LGBTQIA+ community. And she’s one of the first researchers at Colorado State University using quantitative methods to find the best way to do it.
Brenner, an assistant professor of counseling psychology in the College of Natural Sciences, is developing specific interventions that center mindfulness and self-compassion to reduce barriers to seeking mental health support and the impacts of LGBTQIA+ discrimination.
Brenner’s research focuses on stigmas, or negative perceptions, related to seeking help from a psychologist or therapist. This stigma, which is internalized by many due to societal norms, repressions of emotional expression, and unhealthy expectations, especially affects cis-men.
One of the ways this is measured is through an analysis of self-stigma. Self-stigma is how much an individual has internalized societally driven negative perceptions around help-seeking. Individuals with higher self-stigma are less likely to seek help, or are at a higher likelihood of dropping out once they’ve started therapy.
“Let’s say the patient needing help is a man,” said Brenner. “Then that dialogue between doctor and patient might be different, because toxic masculinity can inhibit many people from seeking help.”
Brenner posits that quantitatively understanding a patient’s level of self-stigma about mental health can inform the method of referral doctor can use to reduce the stigma and increase retention with therapists.
Brenner’s stigma-related research also focuses on its effects on the health of LGBTQIA+ individuals.
“It’s been proven that discrimination can negatively impact sleep, which can negatively impact mental and physical health,” she said. “Much of this work has been done with racial minorities, particularly with Black people, which is super important and should be the priority.”
She is hoping to expand that work to other marginalized groups, focusing on sexual identity and orientation.
In both of these research areas, Brenner is planning to develop specific interventions, tailored to the individual, that center mindfulness and self-compassion to reduce the impacts of stigma on daily life.
Supporting students outside of research
Outside of her gender-related research, Brenner makes a point to be a support for students both in and out of the classroom.
“I never had a faculty member who identified as LGBTQ+,” she said. It’s important to Brenner to be seen as a resource to students who might identify like her.
“One of the biggest things is that I exist,” she said. “I exist, and I’m open about being a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and I wear that with pride. I model acceptance and understanding and I don’t tolerate intolerance.”
To her colleagues, it is clear that Brenner’s commitment to student success works and is valued.
“I am consistently impressed by Rachel’s keen ability to explore intersecting identities, which allows her supervisees and mentees to feel safe and supported and foster their growth,” said David Vogel, Brenner’s Ph.D. advisor in the counseling psychology program at Iowa State University. “I have supervised few individuals in these roles who are as effective as Rachel. In all, our counseling program has seen few individuals integrate and advocate for marginalized groups as effectively as Rachel.”
Maddie Egli, a current Ph.D. student at CSU and Brenner’s advisee, agreed.
“Rachel shapes science through her innovative and intersectional research, her incredible mentorship, and her ability to empower a new generation of students to contribute in a meaningful and impactful way,” she said.
Understanding psychology from the get-go
Brenner developed an interest in psychology because her older brother was born with autism and was non-verbal for many years.
“Despite his difficulty articulating his needs verbally, there are countless experiences that I have had with Michael over the years that really highlight how his thoughts and his feelings, desires and dreams, are there and are as articulate, as deep, and as meaningful as any other person’s,” said Brenner. “Growing up, I spent a lot of time learning to pay attention to cues: What’s going on beneath the surface for Michael, what does he need?”
As Brenner got older, she realized that this knowledge of non-verbal cues applied to all people, not just her brother.
“There’s a lot more happening beneath the surface for all of us,” she said.
This newfound skill gave Brenner a desire to understand how people work and why they do the things they do, leading her to her career path in clinical and counseling psychology.
Translating experience into research
When Brenner first started psychology work, she became acutely aware of the effect of stigma because her “sexuality and gender expression did not align with how people said that it should,” she said.
In the same way that her brother’s behaviors didn’t align with how people said they should, Brenner began to notice how stigma impacts how people behave.
“Society shames and stigmatizes a lot of different things about people unnecessarily,” she said. It is her professional goal to help identify and dismantle these stigmas over time.
Brenner noted that there is privilege in studying the stigma around seeking help as a barrier to accessing mental health services.
She mentioned the many other barriers people are facing as well.
“There’s affordability of care, access to care, and right now, with COVID, there’s a huge shortage of therapists,” Brenner said. “There are also issues around having therapists that represent the identities of the person seeking help.”
With these other difficulties in mind, Brenner still is hopeful about her capacity to make change.
Her colleagues definitely agree.
“Rachel’s work is already shaping the profession!” said Melissa Ertl, a former mentor and colleague of Brenner’s. “Impressively, Rachel frequently works with international collaborators from around the globe, promoting cross-cultural psychology and generating new knowledge toward addressing global problems. Her work is rooted in counseling psychology values of social justice, multiculturalism, and advocacy, and reflecting on her record invites all of us to take up important and critical questions with rigor and with attention to cultural diversity in all forms.”