For Colleges and Universities, Reopening Plans Must Meet Students’ Mental Health Needs

Updated Apr 15, 2021
Dr. Kimberly WalkerDr. Kimberly Walker

As more people across the nation become eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, colleges and universities are evaluating the feasibility of bringing students safely back to campus. Of course, access to vaccines and healthcare, as well as protective measures like preventative testing and contact tracing are all top priorities, but administrators must also prepare to meet the mental health needs of their campuses most vulnerable students.

Black students who are first in their family to attend college are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues. They not only must navigate unfamiliar college experiences, but they are also coping with stressors associated with the virus’s disparate impact on Black communities and the country’s racial unrest.

Research shows that first-generation students report higher levels of depression/stress on average compared to non-first generation students; and, racism, insensitive comments, or questions of belonging, all contribute to adverse mental health outcomes for Black students. Combating racial/ethnic discrimination through political activism only exposes students to more stress and anxiety.

Dr. Charmaine TroyDr. Charmaine Troy

As members of the Black First-Gen Collective, we argue that post-secondary institutions must prioritize Black first-generation students’ mental health concerns and invest in Black-first-generation students’ mental health needs by establishing Black-first-generation student mental health research initiatives, creating support spaces, and providing culturally competent staff and training for administrators.

Focusing specifically on Black-first-generation college students will help us gain a clear understanding of the mental health stigma, self-concealment, and help-seeking attitudes. Access to this information may provide counseling and other support services on campus with the tools to develop and refine interventions and outreach programs specifically for Black first-generation college students.

A national survey conducted by the Jed Foundation during the fall 2020 semester reported 63 percent of students said their emotional health is worse than before the pandemic. But only 30 percent said they turned to counseling for support.

Studies indicate that many of the activities provided by counseling services foster engagement, access, and success.

Althea CountsAlthea Counts

However, the literature shows that Black students are less likely to ask for help than their White counterparts. Furthermore, Black college students disproportionately underutilize mental health services, even when they need support and such support services are accessible.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness surveyed 765 college students with mental illness and reported 36% of students cited stigma as the number one barrier to seeking care. Knowing this, institutions should consider establishing support spaces that promote positive mental health versus focusing on mental illness. The First-Generation Student Support Office at Virginia Tech is an example of one program that provides the opportunity for students to share their college experiences, find camaraderie, and access to counselors for services if needed.

Dr. Tracie LoweDr. Tracie Lowe

Furthermore, the appropriate representation of counselors that is reflective of the student body is essential for all college campuses since the lack of Black representation in counseling centers poses a significant barrier to Black students, who may feel as if counselors may not be able to relate to or understand their experiences. The cultural competency and training of all staff members is further necessary for creating inclusive, safe spaces for students on campus.

Despite the odds, Black-first-generation students have successfully navigated educational environments that have not adapted well to their needs. However, colleges and universities are responsible for serving all students regardless of their background, and socio-emotional wellness is critical. Supporting Black-first-generation research initiatives, removing the stigma around mental health, and providing training for faculty and staff are just a few ways to invest in the mental health of Black-first-generation students so they might make a strong return from a year of uncertainty. 

Dr. Tracie A. Lowe is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin for IUPRA.

Althea Counts is the director of TRIO Programs at the University of South Carolina.

Dr. Kimberly Walker is the director of Institutional Effectiveness, Compliance and Academic Programs at the University of South Carolina Upstate.

Dr. Charmaine Troy is the First-Generation Program and Operations Manager at Georgia Tech.