Secretly Struggling Students
Ebony O. McGee was in the middle of a research interview when the student she was speaking with confessed that she’d looked for ways to die in her bathroom.
It wasn’t the first time that McGee, an associate professor of diversity and STEM education at Vanderbilt University, had a student break down during her research. She studies how racism in the STEM disciplines affects Black students, many of whom are secretly struggling.
McGee, who was interviewing the student at another college, accompanied her to the campus’s counseling center, where the only available counselor they found that day, five years ago, was a white man, McGee reports. That night, when McGee called to check on her, the student said she’d sugarcoated her situation to the white counselor, the professor says. “When I followed up with her that night, she was saying that it’s hard to talk about racism and how that’s making her feel with people who never experienced it.”
A 2019 poll of counseling-center directors found that about 70 percent of staff members surveyed were white, and 75 percent were cis-females. The survey found no counselors with disabilities.
Though many colleges have focused on improving student mental health and hiring more diverse counselors in recent years, some minority students are still not getting the help they need. Students of color are more likely than are white students to feel overwhelmed, but less likely to seek mental-health treatment, according to a 2020 report from the Steve Fund. What’s more, students of color have been disproportionately affected by 2020’s coronavirus pandemic, economic crisis, and racial reckoning.
Even when colleges make changes and start diversity and inclusion efforts, racism and microaggressions can still take a toll.
After the 2015 racial-justice protests on the University of Missouri’s flagship campus, Kaleea R. Lewis, now an assistant professor in the department of public health, developed an academic interest in Black students’ mental health. Her research found that students felt “tokenized” at their institutions. They told her that little to nothing would come of protesters’ meetings with the chief diversity officer, and that they didn’t have a seat at the table when their colleges started diversity initiatives. One undergraduate told Lewis that she had put up a facade to mask her cultural differences so they wouldn’t be used against her.
Those coping tactics, among others, weigh on students’ mental health, Lewis said. Students can carry such stresses with them after graduation, and that can turn into depression, anxiety, or other problems. Stress can also manifest itself physically, and lead to high blood pressure, metabolic changes, and sleeplessness, among other conditions.
How to Help
Students of color, Lewis said, often feel excluded, ignored, and as if they don’t belong on campus — feelings that contribute to their heightened stress. Predominantly white institutions can help alleviate those stressors by making students feel recognized and heard.
For starters, colleges can acknowledge how they have benefited or still benefit from racism, Lewis said. They can also ask minority students for feedback and suggestions on diversity and inclusion efforts — and actually carry them out. Students told Lewis that meetings with their college’s chief diversity officer sometimes felt like an effort to placate them, rather than to create meaningful change.
In the classroom, Lewis said, instructors can reach out to students, especially those who are not as vocal or focused as others, and point them to resources like academic advisers or counselors. McGee suggested that colleges hire counselors of color, including ones who have studied race-based stress and high-achieving students. In McGee’s research, many students exhibited such signs of stress as not sleeping or not eating and impostor syndrome — issues that are often accepted as normal for top-notch students, but are cause for concern.
Students should feel mental-health centers are welcoming spaces for people of color, McGee said. Studies and opinion polls often show that people of color are less likely to trust health–care professionals compared with their white peers. To establish that trust, mental-health providers can acknowledge the medical establishment’s past role, which persists to this day, in harming and disregarding Black bodies, she said.
Westminster College in Utah is among the institutions seeking ways to provide culturally responsive mental-health care to students. Tamara N. Stevenson, interim vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion and chief diversity officer, attended a virtual retreat last fall with the Steve Fund where she learned about the importance of culturally responsive counselors who reflect the student body in race, sexual orientation, ability, and other intersectional markers of identity. Those counselors understand factors like racial battle fatigue — the psychological and physiological effects on people of color of responding to continuing microaggressions and racism.
Similarly, the University of Wisconsin system’s behavioral-health task force recommended diversifying its mental-health staff and offering cultural-competency training. John Achter, the system’s coordinator of student behavioral health, said those strategies cost money, which can be a tough sell, but members of the task force can try to persuade leaders to prioritize new hires.
In a forthcoming issue, this newsletter will tackle the mental-health challenges that instructors of color face.