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College Counselors Share Best Practices for Treating Mental Health of Diverse Students

PHILADELPHIA—More than ever, American college and university students are seeking counseling and other mental health services to deal with issues like depression and anxiety.  At the same time, students of color face additional stress and are less likely to access mental care because of their race and ethnicity.


Dr. DJ Ida of the National Asian-American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association.Dr. DJ Ida of the National Asian-American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association.

The Steve Fund—an organization dedicated to promoting the mental health and well-being of young people of color—is working to overcome these challenges specifically on college campuses. Each year, the group brings together college counselors, psychologists, academics, school officials and other mental health workers to highlight the issues that place students of color at a greater risk for mental illness.

This year, over 300 attendees from higher education institutions across the nation gathered at the University of Pennsylvania to participate in the 2018 Young, Gifted & @ Risk forum.

“When it comes to students of color there’s a real fear of one acknowledging that maybe being a person of color places you at a different kind of a risk for having an emotional problem,” said Dr. DJ Ida, who oversees the National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association and has worked at the organization for over 15 years. “We don’t know how to deal with it. I think a lot of main problem is not knowing what do and being really afraid to do something,”

Speakers and panelists explored how issues of race, class, immigration status, discrimination, stigma, cultural mistrust, and feelings of isolation negatively impact the mental and emotional well-being of students of color.

For instance, Crystal Bullard, a veteran psychiatrist in the Carolinas Health System, said that Native Americans, who have higher rates of substance abuse, are likely to seek the help of a spiritual advisor rather than a mental health professional.

Similarly, Ida confirmed that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the least likely of all racial groups to seek out mental health support which may be a symptom of the model minority stereotype and family pressure. Even mental health workers sometimes perceive that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have few problems.

But according to Ida, there are a range of issues that place Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders at a greater risk mental and emotional issues. She noted that 17 percent of Asian Americans report being bullied and underscored that they represent 11.1 million undocumented immigrants living in the country.

“Anti-immigrant sentiment is a mental health issue because it makes it not safe for us to claim who we are,” she said. “We are in a world that has never really understood who people of color are and it’s getting to be more and more challenging for all of us.”

Evan Rose, president of The Steve Fund, said that the specific mental and emotional issues of diverse students don’t get the attention they deserved.

“It’s under-researched largely,” said Rose, who founded the nonprofit with the help of his family just days after his brother Steve ended his own life after battling mental illness. Rose and his family started the Steve Fund when they realized that there were not many resources geared toward effectively treating students of color.

“It’s not just about the person we see who is untreated out on the street talking to himself. It is also about all the ways in which people encounter challenges, and struggles that lead them to be depressed, to be anxious. Things like racial trauma,” said Dr. Alfiee M. Breland-Noble, who directs research for The Steve Fund.

“The experience of being a young Latino or dark-skin male standing on corner trying to get a cab, or calling Uber and you see the Uber keeps driving by, that’s traumatic. That’s traumatizing, Breland-Noble added. “We cannot pretend that it does not have an impact on us. It can absolutely lead to things like depression and anxiety.”

College-based mental health workers can better serve student bodies by recognizing the special challenges of students of color and adapting services to reflect their particular, according to experts.

“It’s hard for some of our colleges to understand the unique aspects of mental issues that may manifest and look different in young of color and part of the reason it’s hard to see because they’re so little research on it,” said Alfiee. “I hope that people can use this as a guide.”

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