The killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the prevalence of anti-Asian hate crime amid the pandemic, the passing away of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The list goes on. A lot has happened in the last 18 months. Many students, especially students of color, have struggled with mental health issues while dealing with virtual learning. As most students will be returning to campus in the fall, administrators from higher education institutions and mental health experts gathered virtually on Thursday to discuss how to best help students navigate through the upcoming semester.
“We can use this moment to consciously choose how to move forward in innovative and equitable ways that are particularly relevant for supporting our BIPOC students,” said Dr. Carlota Ocampo, provost at Trinity Washington University and moderator of the webinar titled, “Promoting Racial Equity in Student Mental Health: Considerations and Strategies for Returning to In-Person Instruction.”
Even before the pandemic, schools have been struggling with engaging students of color.
Dr. Cirleen DeBlaere, associate professor in counseling psychology at Georgia State University, noted that only about 28 percent of students of color believe that their campus is inclusive according to a 2017 survey. In her own study, DeBlaere also found that over 70 percent of students of color experienced microaggression on campus and that would only be amplified by the pandemic.
“All these incidences of microaggressions can accumulate to [and] contribute to racial trauma,” she said, adding that hearing about other people’s experiences or seeing them on social media sites could have a negative impact on student's mental health.
“All of these have mental health implications in terms of depression, anxiety, lower self-esteem, binge drinking, and PTSD symptoms,” said DeBlaere.
The trauma that students of color experience can not only affect them mentally but also physically. Dr. Stephen Quaye, an associate professor in education studies at The Ohio State University, has been studying the phenomenon called racial battle fatigue, the exhaustion people of color experience from repeated racism.
“[People] who are experiencing racial battle fatigue often also experienced headaches, grinding of teeth, shortness of breath,” said Quaye. “We might also have trouble sleeping, and then emotionally and behaviorally, loss of appetite, increased use of alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism. And then poor school and job performance.”
To better welcome back students who have already experienced racial trauma in the past year, Ocampo suggested devoting more resources to faculty development.
“When students walk into a classroom in any institution, what they see is their faculty, and to them, that faculty is the institution,” said Ocampo.
She noted that some white faculty might avoid some topics in fear of making mistakes. Universities and colleges, she added, need to help all faculty create a safe and welcoming campus climate for students.
Dr. William Lopez, a professor at the University of Michigan, noted that even making small changes to the syllabus can help traumatized students feel more seen and included. Since the onset of the pandemic, he added a note to his syllabus.
“[The note] help students understand that I understand that their lives are very difficult right now. And so my expectations are not what they were previously,” he said. “We are not in a normal time. So we should not be doing normal things."
Lopez said that faculty must validate students’ feelings.
“'I hear you.' 'I'm sorry you experienced that.' 'What do you need?' Those are the ways to respond to them.” he added.