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More Focus Needed on Black Mental Health at HBCUs

Chandra White-Cummings

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Most college students have been back on campus for a month or so. Whether new or returning, the routine is the same: choose and register for classes, purchase textbooks and supplies, resolve any remaining problems with housing and meals, and most importantly make sure the money is right. If asked, it’s a safe bet that many college students would say that their stress level begins to creep up from the moment they take that first walk around campus. In fact recent studies indicate that anxiety, stress, and depression are at all-time high levels among college students. An American College Health Association study found that the percentage of students who reported having been diagnosed with depression rose from 10% in 2000 to 16%. 

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It also named stress as the most significant obstacle hindering student performance, and revealed that 1 of 10 students surveyed had seriously thought about suicide. Those are aggregate figures that include all students surveyed, and data that focuses on students of color, and more particularly black students, is not nearly as available. Also, even the surveys that specifically include subgroup data for black students invariably involves those attending predominantly white institutions (PWIs), not historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). It is critical to close this data gap given the intensifying racial tension and aggressions in society. More than ever, every black college student needs support and resources to resist and navigate the racial climate and still be able to perform academically and contribute their knowledge, training, and insight to the pressing problems plaguing the black community.

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As researchers and mental health professionals in higher education grapple with how to best help black students identify, acknowledge, and manage stress and mental health conditions, more needs to be known about how the social and academic environments at HBCUs might contribute both protective and risk factors to the mental and emotional health of students there. In December 2016 Historically Black Colleges and Universities—Law Enforcement Executives and Administrators, and the National Center for Campus Public Safety issued Managing Student Mental Health at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Findings from a Critical Issues Forum. Public Safety and administration leaders from 28 HBCUs in 14 states-- including  top-ranked Spelman College, Morehouse College, Hampton University, and Howard University-- attempted to identify significant issues related to addressing the mental health needs of students. The gathering analyzed the issue using a campus safety lens and was partially sponsored by college law enforcement executives.

This context warrants thoughtful application of the results because of the reputation of public police in the broader community. But the group’s work is a valid starting point to continue to develop strategies and frameworks for supporting students in HBCU environments.

One of the takeaways from the forum’s report is list of identified needs that should be met to establish supportive services and a stigma-free culture for students.

  1. Adequate staff to meet the mental health needs of students
  2. Staff trained in mental health crisis recognition, management, and de-escalation
  3. Sufficiently descriptive policies detailing provision of mental health services
  4. Adequate procedures and protocols that are appropriately documented
  5. Strategies and policies to address communication barriers created by regulatory schemes and requirements
  6. Effective campaigns to break down cultural barriers, including stigma and poor leadership engagement
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A brief overview of what’s available at the top five HBCUs(2017 U.S. News & World Report ranking)

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Spelman College — Wellness Center, counseling services, yoga, meditation, self-care consultations

Howard University — Crisis services, suicide prevention chats through Suicide Prevention Lifeline, lists of resources available, sexual assault information

Hampton University — Student counseling  center with integrated health and wellness services, health and wellness coaching, stress management skills training and information

Morehouse College — Counseling center, suicide awareness and prevention

Tuskegee University — Wellness center with individual and group counseling, including 24/7 support through a contracted behavioral health partner

Chandra C.