Addressing the Mental Health Ailments Facing Black College Students

BALTIMORE If the walls of Cicely Evans’ office could talk, they would tell of the mental health ailments facing Black college students, including domestic violence, depression, anxiety, stress, unresolved issues of homosexuality and thoughts of suicide.

“The hardest part is getting students through the door,” said Evans, a licensed professional counselor at Southern University at Baton Rouge. “Many are afraid of the stigma attached to mental health treatment. Students do not want to be labeled as crazy or weak.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate for Black Americans of all ages was 5.25 per 100,000, nearly half of the overall U.S rate of 10.75 per 100,000 between 2000 and 2004. Black males from ages 20 to 24 had the highest rate of suicide in the Black population, averaging 18.18 per 100,000.

Counselors, therapists, researchers and educators from across the country who attended Morgan State University’s Fourth Annual Counseling Center Conference sought to address how to better serve the mental health needs of students attending historically Black colleges and universities.

While many Blacks remain skeptical of psychological treatment, opting for a more spiritual approach to mental wellness, studies show that they are more likely to experience a mental disorder than Whites and less likely to seek treatment. “Students at HBCUs may be at more risk for suicides and other mental illnesses, because we are not talking about them. Black campuses haven’t experienced a large-scale catastrophe like the one at Virginia Tech, but these issues are still prevalent,” said Tracy Reed, a registered licensed professional counselor intern.

Cultural biases and low socioeconomic status are the biggest impediments facing minorities with mental health issues. Nearly 20 percent of Black Americans are uninsured and living below the poverty level, putting them at a disadvantage in accessing both medical and mental health care. Even those who seek professional help, experts say, eventually drop out or attend fewer sessions because of the lack of cultural awareness among physicians.

To eliminate the stigma associated with mental health treatment, professionals recommend that HBCUs collaborate across systems and departments to raise awareness.

“Counseling departments can’t take it on all by themselves. Issues like suicide, domestic violence and rape come up on different levels,” said Dr. Angela Lee, a counselor at North Carolina Central University. “Campus police, counselors, resident assistants and the dean of students all need to be on the same page and send the same messages.”

One program offers promise. A group of undergraduate students from the University of Virginia are promoting mental wellness through a peer-counseling organization called Project RISE, Resolving Issues through Support and Education. Geared toward Black students, peer counselors aim to create a positive atmosphere in which students can get help, information and someone to talk to about their problems.

–Michelle J. Nealy

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