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The Steve Fund Improves Mental Health Services for Students of Color

The Steve Fund – a nonpro­fit dedicated to improving mental health for students of color – hosted a series of on-campus, daylong conferences called “Young, Gifted and @Risk.”

Each conference brought faculty, administration, students and mental health experts together for in-depth discussions on the emotional well-being of minority students.

The first conference in the series took place in October at the University of Michigan, and two more convened at Georgetown University and the City University of New York (CUNY) on Nov. 1 and Nov. 15, respectively.

From left to right: Dr. Narcisa A. Polonio, Dr. Annelle Primm, Susan L. Taylor, Anuja Khemka and Elaine HarrisFrom left to right: Dr. Narcisa
A. Polonio, Dr. Annelle Primm,
Susan L. Taylor, Anuja Khemka
and Elaine Harris

While all of the conferences focused on the same broader theme of mental health for students of color, The Steve Fund worked with each school to create a conference agenda tailored to their interests.

“[The program] depends on what the desire is of that particular campus,” says Dr. Annelle Primm, chief medical officer at The Steve Fund. “We work in close collaboration with them in designing the program and in ensuring that some of the key issues of concern on that campus are highlighted and uplifted.”

University of Michigan’s conference “Young, Gifted, @Risk & Resilient” focused on how campus climate impacts mental health for students of color. One panel, for example, delved into the effect microaggressions can have on minority students while another dealt with how to respond to racial biases in higher education.

At Georgetown University, the “Young, Gifted and Advancing” conference emphasized how mental health and emotional well-being affect retention rates among students of color.

The third conference in the series, which included participants from multiple CUNY campuses, focused on the mental health needs of nontraditional students on community college campuses.

The Steve Fund began running these conferences in 2014 with its initial one convening at Brown University. Since then, the organization has hosted similar gatherings at Stanford University, Washington University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Texas at Austin and Harvard University.

“There’s almost no college or university that doesn’t want to have this conversation in a big way,” Primm says.

Yet those conversations don’t happen often enough, says Dr. Sherry Molock, an associate professor of clinical psychology at George Washington University.

At Georgetown, Molock led a breakout session on mental health and spirituality and co-led the keynote session “Macro and Micro Climates: Challenges to and Protectors of Mental Health for Students of Color.” She also spoke at a Steve Fund conference in Washington, D.C. on the role of religion and spirituality in mental health.

“Sometimes college students are sort of forgotten in the fray because they’re technically adults,” she says. “And I think there’s an assumption they have mental health services available on campus so they’ll be ok.”

But she pointed out that it’s not that simple. Rural campuses, for example, often lack mental health services, and the services that do exist on college campuses are often overextended. Plus, counselors and faculty might not know how to specifically address the needs of students of color.

Meanwhile, students of color, like all students, want to be more independent in college even though it may be the time they need their support systems most, Molock says.

That’s why her keynote plenary focused on campus climate, because she believes mental health for minority students depends not only on campus services but their surroundings, from the national political environment to their classrooms.

“While it’s important to provide treatment, that can’t be your only strategy,” Molock says. “You really have to think about things that we can do to make campuses more friendly, less stressful to different communities of color …. The analogy I gave to them is minority students feel like they’re guests, and they don’t feel like family. They need to feel like family.”

Dr. David Rivera, who co-led the keynote session at Georgetown University as well as a breakout session on intersectionality, calls it a “systems approach” — putting the onus on institutions instead of blaming students of color when they react to “the immense pressure that they’re under” from “everyday contact with a hostile campus climate.”

When mental health conversations focus on students, not institutions, they “inappropriately pathologize the student,” making them feel “solely responsible” for their well-being, Rivera said. But maintaining a student’s mental health is actually “an interactive and reciprocal process that occurs between the student and the institution and the wider community students find themselves navigating.”

Rivera is an associate professor of counselor education at Queens College, CUNY. He’s also a national adviser for the Steve Fund and has attended seven out of eight Steve Fund conferences throughout the years. He also ran a session about the needs of LGBTQ students of color at the CUNY conference and spoke about intersectionality and campus bias.

He says the goal of the conference series is to not only bridge the gap between mental health experts, staff, parents and students of color but to make sure participants leave with ideas for practical solutions to improve minority students’ mental health on each campus.

“People are really looking for tangible takeaways,” he says. For the future, Molock hopes to see conference participants leave with strategic plans for campus mental health for students of color, even if they are small commitments, such as a professor choosing to implement one new teaching practice or parents finding one additional way to support their child.

She wants people to ask, “Now that we have all of this great information, what can we do? What can we take back to our campuses? What can we take back to our families? What can we take back to our dorms?”

The conferences were also a chance for Steve Fund staff to witness the diverse conversations happening around mental health on campuses today.

“[The series is] really quite a wonderful opportunity for The Steve Fund to see how the focus on mental health and well-being for students of color gets translated in different flavors on the different campuses,” Primm says.

“It makes a nice cornucopia of ways of addressing the issue of mental health and well-being in students of color, looking at different facets of that issue, different dimensions.”

While each conference is unique, Anuja Khemka, executive director of The Steve Fund, has watched themes emerge at campuses across the country.

One issue that frequently comes up in these discussions is that students of color are less likely to seek out mental health services when they’re struggling. She shared that in her own family, it wasn’t the norm to freely talk about mental health.

“For young people of color, the stigma seems to be more,” she says. “Conversations about mental health need to be normalized.”

Campuses also often lack counselors of color who “get the nuances” of their day-to-day lives, she adds. Meanwhile, the mental health resources that do exist on campus aren’t always so accessible. For this reason, The Steve Fund focuses on mental health support services students can access via their phones like its crisis text line for young people of color.

Khemka hopes the conferences will be an opportunity for university stakeholders to learn about The Steve Fund’s resources, so they can make them available to their students.

“Honestly, the biggest goal is that [attendees] go back empowered to support the mental health and wellness of young people of color on their campuses,” she says. “For me, that’s the ultimate goal.”

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