by Laura Horne
Help and hope are available. Since 2003, Active Minds has empowered students facing mental health struggles to share their stories to let others know they’re not alone and to spread that message: help and hope are available. During my time as a member of the Active Minds team, I’ve come to recognize that I and many of my professional peers share the same question: how do we ensure this empowerment is extended fully to students of color?
Research shows that students of color are twice as likely to say they are not emotionally prepared for college than their peers. Yet, they are less likely to seek help. Public health advocates and professionals historically have been reluctant to identify racism as a root cause of racial health inequities, but an emerging body of research has begun making the connection between health, particularly mental health and emotional wellness, and interpersonal and structural racism.
This spring, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin published a study in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, in which they found a high prevalence of “imposter syndrome” among African American, Asian American, and Latino American college students – that is, a condition of feeling like a fraud because of an inability to internalize success and a feeling of incompetence – and that high imposter feelings were a positive predictor of anxiety and depression. In other words, the students’ awareness of racial prejudices and stereotypes (i.e. assumed lower intelligence among African American and Latino American students and “model minority” stereotypes of Asian American students) induced an imposter phenomenon and contributed to incidences of anxiety and depression.
Perhaps no secret to anyone, college students have also recently experienced a change in climate regarding race and ethnicity on many of their campuses post-Presidential election. Just last week, it was reported that a noose was found hanging in a fraternity house at the University of Maryland, an incident that followed just days after a similarly despicable act at American University. The Southern Poverty Law Center tracked more than 1,000 hate crimes in the U.S. in one month alone following the election, 36% of which occurred on college and K-12 campuses. According to their data, nearly 74% of incidents of white nationalist materials distribution occurred on college campuses, where the white nationalist movement hopes to grow its numbers (and where roughly 39% of enrolled students are of color).
The students I work with frequently discuss the impact of the current political climate on their own mental health. Some students hid in their dorm rooms for the days immediately following the election. Many Spanish-speaking students signed up for lessons in speaking English.
There is a host of literature linking such instances of interpersonal and perceived racism to negative health outcomes, such as depression, anxiety, distress, psychological stress, post-traumatic stress, and even biomarkers of disease, such as inflammatory markers, cortisol dysregulation, telomere length, and allostatic load.
In short, racism is making us sick.
Last month, to help us better understand the broader context in which racism and health are interacting, a team of researchers from New York and Boston came together to point out in The Lancet that to truly reduce health inequities, we must be willing to address structural racism, involving “interconnected institutions, whose linkages are historically rooted and culturally reinforced.” Examples of structural racism impacting many of the students of color experiencing imposter syndrome and other forms of interpersonal racism include the failure by our university systems to consider mental health as a retention and graduation issue. Additionally, hiring and educational/training practices have produced counseling centers that are more often than not “white spaces,” predominantly or sometimes exclusively staffed by counselors who neither reflect the diversity of their students nor are trained to help with often culturally-linked mental health concerns of students of color.
Not to mention the various examples of structural racism impacting students of color beyond the campus walls and in a range of disciplines and sectors, including but not limited to housing, employment and earnings, media, criminal justice, and so on.
We have a long way to go to ensure mental health services are inclusive of and utilized by students of color. I’m encouraged to see more public health professionals addressing racism head-on through their innovative research. Their work teaches us that we each have a role in applying that knowledge in our various sectors and communities.
To learn more about how to support the mental health and emotional well-being of students of color, seek out and get involved with one of the many organizations in the field working to empower students to speak openly about mental health and leading innovative mental health initiatives with a focus on diversity/inclusion. Some of these incredible organizations include Active Minds, Each Mind Matters, the Healthy Minds Network, and the Steve Fund. If you’re struggling, text HOME to 741741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Laura is Director of Programs at Active Minds, the nation’s premier nonprofit supporting mental health awareness and education for students. Through award-winning programs and services, Active Minds is empowering a new generation to speak openly, act courageously, and change the conversation about mental health for everyone.