Students

Many Black Students Don’t Seek Help for Mental-Health Concerns, Survey Finds

January 13, 2016

A new national poll sheds light on racial disparities between students who feel prepared for college and those who don’t. The survey was released by the Jed Foundation, which works to prevent suicide by college students, and the Steve Fund, which focuses on the mental health of minority students. The fund honors Stephen C. Rose (pictured), a Harvard graduate who committed suicide in 2014.
African-American students feel less emotionally prepared for college than white students do, and they’re also more likely to keep their worries to themselves, according to the results of a national poll released on Wednesday.

The survey marks one of the first efforts born of a partnership between the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the emotional well-being of college students, and the Steve Fund, a group focused on the mental health of minority students that was formed in 2014 to honor Stephen C. Rose, an African-American graduate of Harvard University who committed suicide that year at age 29.

The results of the survey, which was conducted online last year by Harris Poll, reflect a clear racial disparity between students who feel comfortable in a college setting and students who do not. Among the 1,500 second-semester freshmen who responded, less than half of black students rated their college experience as "good" or "excellent," compared with nearly two-thirds of white students.

African-American students were more likely to report feeling overwhelmed and angry, and to say that college wasn’t living up to their expectations. Black students were almost twice as likely to report that they had seriously considered transferring during their first semester.

Black students also didn’t seek help as often as white students for their mental and emotional problems; white students were nearly twice as likely to report receiving a diagnosis of anxiety, depression, or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Three-quarters of black students said they tended to keep their feelings about the difficulties of college to themselves.

The survey’s findings were released in the midst of a wave of student protests about the racial climate on college campuses. One of the activists’ most frequent demands of their administrations: improve counseling and support services for minority students.

Unique Challenges

Alfiee M. Breland-Noble, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University Medical Center who works with the Steve Fund, said activists are serving as the "boots-on-the-ground voice" to illustrate why it’s important for colleges to deal with the unique emotional challenges that minority students face.

What are those challenges? For African-American and Hispanic students, especially at predominantly white institutions, dealing with racial stressors and with being underrepresented on the campus are two common problems, Dr. Breland-Noble said. Though many colleges have over the years increased their number of black and Hispanic students, she said, the minority percentage remains relatively small, so administrators and counselors don’t always have the specific tools they need to help those students.

Most of the survey’s findings were not surprising, particularly for mental-health professionals, Dr. Breland-Noble said. But they provide a foundation from which colleges can begin thinking about how they can better serve minority students, she said.

For instance, the black students surveyed were less likely to report that they had felt more pressure to drink alcohol now that they were in college, or that drinking was a normal part of the college experience.

"African-American students are not resorting to some of these really negative ways of coping," Dr. Breland-Noble said. "In my mind, that’s encouraging." However, if black students aren’t using alcohol or drugs to manage their internal struggles, she asked, "what are they doing?"

The African-American respondents were also more than twice as likely as white students to turn to a religious figure for support during their first semester. So colleges could consider teaming up with religious figures, she said, and ensuring that they know how to point students toward on- and off-campus resources.

Strategies That Work

A sizable amount of research has been done on minority students and mental health, Dr. Breland-Noble said, notably on microaggressions. But the studies don’t tend to leave the shelf. "There’s often not a great deal of uptake across the board in terms of translating those findings into specific interventions that students can benefit from," she said.

That’s where the Jed Foundation and the Steve Fund see an opportunity. The two organizations are working with McLean Hospital, in Massachusetts, to review current literature on minority students and mental health, and they plan soon to survey dozens of colleges to see what kinds of programs have been developed for those students and to gauge which ones have worked.

A group of experts will evaluate the findings and develop recommendations for college administrators and counselors, as well as parents and students, said Victor Schwartz, medical director at the Jed Foundation. The recommendations will include a range of specific, evidence-based best practices, he said.

Given that it’s such a pressing issue, the plan is to release the recommendations within a few months, said John MacPhee, executive director of the Jed Foundation.

Dr. Schwartz stopped short of saying that colleges are, on the whole, not adequately supporting minority students; some institutions, he said, "are really trying to do a lot of work in this area." The problem, he said, is that colleges "tend to reinvent the wheel" because they don’t know what solutions are out there. "We want to publicize strategies that have worked and that, by the consensus of our expert group, we hope will work," he said.

One college that’s ahead of the curve is the University of Virginia, Dr. Breland-Noble said. Michael Gerard Mason, a staff psychotherapist at the university's Elson Student Health Center, started a peer-counseling program called Project Rise a decade ago.

He had noticed, Dr. Breland-Noble said, that many black students "would get to campus and flounder a little during their first year." So he began training a group of student counselors who could help their peers discuss issues openly and point them to support services on the campus.

Encouraging such conversations is critical, Dr. Breland-Noble said. Minority students don’t always recognize that they’re experiencing a mental-health problem, she said, in part because it’s not often talked about in their social circles.

"They hear people saying, I’m tired, or I’ve got the blues," she said. "They haven’t heard people saying, I’m medically depressed."

Correction (1/15/2016, 12:21 p.m.): This article originally misidentified a University of Virginia employee who started a peer-counseling program. That employee is Michael Gerard Mason, a staff psychotherapist, not John Edwin Mason, a history professor. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.

Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher-education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at sarah.brown@chronicle.com.


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