Mental Health and People of Color: A Quiet Conversation

When looking at communities of color, there are often harsh stigmas against mental health. New research has shown that students of color are much less likely to ask for help when they’re stressed or coping with other mental health concerns. Two organizations, The Jed Foundation, which works with colleges on suicide prevention, and the Steve Fund, which works to enhance the emotional well-being of young people of color, released data from a Harris Poll taken in 2015. The survey was conducted with 1,502 students aged 17 to 20, and the results showed that black and Hispanic students were more likely to feel overwhelmed in college, but they are also more likely than white students to keep their mental health concerns to themselves. The poll also revealed that white students were more likely than their black and Hispanic classmates to feel both academically and emotionally prepared for college. White students were also twice as likely to be treated for various mental health issues.

Ebony McGee, a researcher at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College who has studied black students’ mental health concerns points out, “this speaks to the fact that black folks have been talking about this pain and suffering for a long time now, and the typical response is ‘It’s all in your head,’ or ‘You need to suck it up’.”  Notably, students of color are statistically more likely to be first-generation college students or come from lower-income backgrounds. As a result, students coming from these backgrounds may be able to have access to counseling services for the first time when they arrive at college, which could be one reason they aren’t as likely to take advantage of such resources, since the resources are unfamiliar to them.

The stigma against mental health among people of color has become more prevalent recently in mainstream media. For example, we see the character Andre, who has bipolar disorder, in the show Empire. His father Lucious oftentimes rejects the idea of his son having bipolar disorder and shames Andre by keeping his son’s disorder a secret. On the outside, Andre can be perceived as a parent’s ideal child; he’s hardworking, wants to make his parents proud, and has a ivy league degree. However, Andre shows that these seemingly perfect traits do not make him immune to mental health disorders. Oftentimes at Duke, and at many other universities, there are students who appear to be picture perfect like Andre, and it seems that these students are skyrocketing to more success with every passing day. This image, of course, is a falsehood. The discussion of making mental health issues a norm rather than an issue that has to have shame attached to it needs to occur more often and more prominently, or else the potentials of people of color will continue to rot away. Students of color are conscious of mental health. In 2015, the list of “Demands of Black Voices” at Duke University included greater emphasis on mental health. Reducing the stigma against mental health and making mental health issues a norm are desires that have been expressed time and time again. However, there is still obviously a heavy stigma attached to mental health especially in communities of color, and until this is addressed, students of color will continue to not receive the treatment they deserve to thrive. With the racial barriers students of color already face, lack of mental health treatment does not need to be another barrier for us. As students of color, we should be proactive in our mental health and not wait until we hit rock bottom. We should know that it is completely okay to seek help and that if some of us need mental health assistance while others do not, it does not make us any less worthy than them.