Mental Health and Wellness for Students of Color: Transitioning to College

Mental Health and Wellness for Students of Color: Transitioning to College


MICHELLE WILLIAMS:
Welcome to The Forum, live streamed worldwide
from the Leadership Studio at the Harvard TH Chan
School of Public Health. I’m Dean Michelle Williams. The forum is a collaboration
between the Harvard Chan School and independent news media. Each program features
a panel of experts addressing some of today’s most
pressing public health issues. The Forum is one way
the school advances the frontiers of
public health and makes scientific insights accessible
to policymakers and the public. I hope you find this program
engaging and informative. Thank you for joining us. TARYN FINLEY: Hello, everyone. Welcome, my name
is Taryn Finley, and I’m HuffPost
Black Voices editor– and I’m also today’s
moderator for this panel. Join me in welcoming
our panelists. From my right, we have
John Silvanus Wilson, who was a senior advisor and
strategist to the president of Harvard University. Next, we have David
Williams, who’s the chair of the Department of
Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard Chan School. Next, we have Stephanie
Pinder-Amaker, founding director of McLean
Hospital’s College Mental Health Program, and a national
advisor to the Steve Fund. And last but not least,
we have David Rivera, who is associate professor of
counselor education at Queens College, and also a national
advisor to the Steve Fund. Welcome, you all. This event is presented
in partnership with the Steve
Fund and HuffPost. We are streaming
live on The Forum, as well as HuffPost websites,
and Facebook and YouTube. This program will include a
brief Q&A towards the end. And you can send questions to
The Forum at hsph.harvard.edu. You can also participate in
a live chat happening now on The Forum. Colleges are currently
grappling with how to address the mental
health needs of students. At the same time, there
is a growing recognition that students of color
have a unique set of needs and experiences,
and that they are likelier to feel more
overwhelmed and isolated on campus than their
white counterparts, but they are also less
likely to seek counseling. Today, we’re going to talk about
the experiences of students of color, and what
colleges can do can do to better support them
during that transition period to college, and
during matriculation. Well, let’s start with a clip
from the Steve Fund, in which two members of their
youth advisory board discuss their campus
experience as women of color. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] – I know that for
me personally there are different pieces of my
identity that intersect, and create an overall reason why
my mental health isn’t the best days, or some semesters. I know that a lot of that
has to do with just being an at out-of-state student. I’m originally from Florida,
going to school in Michigan, being a student of color
at a predominantly white institution. So again, Michigan State
has over 50,000 students, and the Latinx
community in itself is less than 500 students. So we are not necessarily
a big community at MSU. So when I got there, it was kind
of hard to find my community and find my voice. So my first semester,
my mental health was not in the best spot. And a lot of it was because I
didn’t see people like myself. Also, just being a daughter
of migrant farm workers was hard, because I’m used
to seeing things differently. And my definition of
what hard work is, or what I have to do to
get to a certain spot, differs than that
of my colleagues. And again, just being
a woman of color at a predominantly white
institution is hard. There are certain things that
test me, challenge me, and make unnecessary struggles that my
white colleagues don’t face – It’s a lot of
paranoia, because you don’t know what’s next. Because at the end of the day,
you’re still a person of color. So it’s a lot of anxiety
and a lot of paranoia. And I’m not really
into politics, but I know what’s
right and what’s wrong. And I know that we’re
not treated fairly as people of color. We don’t get the opportunities
that non people of color get. So it’s just a lot. Especially, with me
about to graduate in 2020 and go on to get a career,
it was really, really anxious to think about how I won’t
be put on the forefront, because of my color. [END PLAYBACK] TARYN FINLEY:
Powerful testimonies. John, before Harvard,
you were actually president at Morehouse
College, which is a historically black college. And I’m wondering, you
spent time as a student and as a leader at both
Harvard and Morehouse. Can you talk about
the differences that you’ve noticed– not only as a student,
but also a leader? JOHN SILVANUS WILSON: So I was
an undergraduate at Morehouse. And when I was at
Morehouse, I felt seen. I felt heard. I felt valued. I felt like the institution
itself was custom made for me and there for me. I felt like I belonged. Then, I came to graduate school
here at Harvard University, and I did not feel
seen, heard, or valued. I did not feel like
the institution itself was made
for me, nor did it feel like it was there for me. And I did not feel
like I belonged. So I was essentially othered. So the lesson there
is that institutions can have an impact on the
quality of the student experience, just by the
way they’re set up– just by the way they present
themselves to students. Fast forward. I become president of Morehouse,
and now senior advisor to the president of Harvard. And I’ve shifted from
recognizing the impact on students to recognizing the
institutional responsibility to alter that impact– to
pay attention to it, to do something about it. So I’m here at a time when
mental health concerns are, like, off the charts. And if we recognize
that if they’re off the charts in general,
and students of color are less likely to be
aware of the services, less likely to be diagnosed,
and less likely to be treated, then that really
brings into focus the institutional
responsibility. We’re big fans at Harvard
of the Steve Fund, because they are all
about bringing into focus the institutional responsibility
for the experiences of students of color– making sure that there are
changes institutionally, that you can make to change
the impact on students– as I went through as a student at
Morehouse shifting to Harvard. So that’s where we are now. I’m in a position in the
office of the president to make a real
difference at Harvard. And we’re partnering
with Steve Fund, and with the kind of people
we have on the panel here TARYN FINLEY: Yeah. And I definitely
want to get into some of those changes and solutions. But first, let’s get to the real
impact that discrimination has. David Williams,
you’ve studied this. You’ve done real and
measurable research on how discrimination impacts
not only physically, but also mentally, young people. Can you talk about
these studies? And what can colleges
learn from them as they start to better
support these students? DAVID WILLIAMS: I think there’s
a lot that colleges need to do. But we even need to
start before college. So there was a study
recently published that looked at 20
years of national data for the United States,
between 1993 and 2012. And it looked at
the suicide rates among elementary-school
children in the US. Nationally the rates
were fairly stable, but that reflected
a marked decline in suicide for white children
in elementary school, and a doubling of
the suicide rates among African American children. So what does it mean
to be African American in this society, that we have
seen a doubling of the suicide rate among children aged 5
to 12 over a 20-year window? And I have done work with one
of my former post-doctoral fellows, Dr. Brendesha Tynes. We did the first study looking
at online discrimination and its effect on middle
and high-school children. And what we found
was these students in middle and high school,
that online discrimination, racial discrimination led
to increases in depression symptoms and anxiety symptoms,
independent of another measure of adolescent stress,
and independent of discrimination offline. So just even the online context,
that we sometimes don’t even think about, is one source of
discrimination for students. And then if you
look at studies that have been done among
college students, there was one
published two years ago that interviewed students of
color on a university campus. And they asked them, what
are your biggest concerns? And the biggest concerns
of these students was aggressive policing. Am I even going to
make it home tonight? A second big concern was high
levels of community violence. And a third one was
about financial stress, and their own concern about
them being able to make it, and the stability
of their housing. This study revealed high levels
of fear, high levels of threat, high levels of hopelessness– no perceived
economic opportunity for them, and uncertainty
about the future. That’s the recipe for
mental health challenges, for being overwhelmed
by stress, and so on. And there is reason. Again, it’s not
just the students, but the entire society
and entire communities. I published a paper with
some of my colleagues last year, showing
that every police killing of an unarmed
black person in America leads to worse mental health
for the entire black population in the state in which it occurs
for the next three months. So we are products of
the larger environment. And another piece of
the large environment, I would say to end, is
the political hostility and stigmatization that is
in our current political environment. There was a study done of
students in Los Angeles. They were in 11th grade
in the spring of 2016. And they found that those
students that expressed concern about hostility
and discrimination against stigmatized
populations had high levels of the
use of cigarettes, high levels of the use of
alcohol, of marijuana– higher depressive symptoms. They followed them a year later. And those who were
high also had increased on all of these
substance-abuse behaviors, and on depressive symptoms. So there’s a lot that needs
to be done at the university level, but we also need
to step back as a society and say, what kind of
society are we living in? What kind of society
are we creating? Because it impacts on
young people growing up in this context. TARYN FINLEY: Yeah,
it’s systemic. It’s systemic. And there are layers to
this, as you were saying. Stephanie, you were
actually on this stage last year talking about the
mental health of students. So now we narrow in, and we
talk about this population of students of color. And can you tell us
a little bit more about why it’s vital
to think specifically about these challenges? And Dr. Williams
touched on some of them. But how are their
concerns– like, how are our concerns as
students of color different? STEPHANIE PINDER-AMAKER:
OK, thank you. Yes, it was almost a
year ago to the date. I think within a mental
health context it’s important. David spoke about
a certain recipe. And an important
part of that recipe, that just for level setting
is important to be aware of, is that the traditional
college-age years of between 18 and 25 just happen to coincide
with the peak period of onset for major psychiatric
illnesses– like major depression,
generalized anxiety disorder, and so forth. But we also know– and the research is very
clear on this point– that stress is a strong
contributing factor. It’s a robust
predictor of the onset of these very same illnesses. So we want to ask ourselves,
relative to race and ethnicity, what is it that
students of color might be uniquely
experiencing as stressors? And it’s everything
that was just mentioned. It’s repeated
exposure to incidents of racism, discrimination,
microaggressions– questions about belonging on campus. And we know– again, the
research is very, very clear– that repeated exposure to
these types of experiences is highly correlated
with an increase in psychological distress–
symptoms of depression, anxiety, hopelessness. And so I like to say
that we can’t do anything about chronological age, but
we can definitely do something about these stressors. And I want to cite a study
that’s just about to come out. It’s a study by Cindy
Liu and Justin Chen. And they looked at the American
College Health Association data from 2015. And this is a national survey
of the health and well-being of college students. And they revisited this
data, disaggregated by race and ethnicity– really
focusing in on these factors. And what they found
is really concerning. They identified
that students who identified as black
and Hispanic were just as likely as their white
peer counterparts students to report symptoms
of suicide ideation, or thoughts of
hurting themselves, and just as likely to have
as many suicide attempts. Also, students who identified
as Asian, Pacific Islander, and multiracial were
significantly more likely to report symptoms
of suicidal ideation, and more suicide attempts
than their white student counterparts. Why is this important? All of the above categories
of students of color had fewer recorded instances
of psychiatric illnesses. So this is of great
concern, because it suggests that students of
color, navigating some of the challenges
on college campuses, may be working with
undetected and therefore untreated mental illnesses– while coping with all
of the above stressors. So this is a gap. This is a health disparity
that we must address, in close. TARYN FINLEY: You can’t
ignore those numbers. David, we’ve spoken a lot about
the university’s role in this. But I also want to talk
about some of those stressors that Stephanie was
just talking about– on campus, in and
outside of the classroom. Why is college life– why
can it be so difficult for students of color? DAVID RIVERA: Thanks, Taryn. And I’m happy to be here talking
about such an important topic. I like to think of myself
as having kind of a 360 view of the higher-ed system. I started my career
in student affairs. Now I’m on the professor side,
and I do a combination of both. So I’ve had the
unique perspective into the on-campus and
off-campus lives of students. And I’m really excited about the
ecological perspective that’s been introduced on
this panel already. I think we really need
to be looking larger– about how different communities
intersect with one another to impact the lived
experience of the students. And looking at those vignettes
that were shared earlier– the lived experiences of
those two women of color on their campuses of not being
seen, of not being understood– rendering them pretty
much invisible on campus. I would like to say that
those are unique experiences, but they’re not. 20-plus years ago–
to date myself, when I was an
undergraduate student– I had those similar experiences
on my predominately white campus as a Latinx
student– where I didn’t see reflections
of myself in the faculty, for example. We look at disparities
in education, and we find that
across the board the numbers of
students in higher ed do not match the percentage
of students of people of color in everyday life
in this country. When we look at
professors, that number shrinks even more dramatically. Over 70% of
professors are white. Only 4% around identify as
Latinx, which is my identity. And so what does that send
to a student who, let’s say, is studying accounting? And they never see a professor
that looks like them. What message does that
send to that student? Does it send a message that
they belong in that profession, that they’re welcomed? Possibly not, right? And so that might have
a significant impact on not only their
immediate well-being, but the long-term
trajectory of their career. The students also mentioned
intersectionality– how there are multiple
identities that we all manage and maintain,
and that work together in concert to inform the
way that we understand the world around
us– our worldview. And so we know from the
Healthy Minds study that’s done annually– it’s a study of
college-student wellness across the country– that if you’re low
income, if you’re a first generation in your
family to go to college, and if you’re a person of
color– which those three often come together very
commonly– that that is a significant
risk for developing mental-health compromises
throughout the college years. And so we have to stop taking
a cookie-cutter approach to addressing these
issues, and start developing more
culturally-relevant approaches, that are going to reach
students where they are. TARYN FINLEY: Yeah. And we’re going to shift
to those approaches and kinds of solutions. But first, we’re going
to look at another clip. This young man’s
name is Kai Roberts. This clip is from Active Minds. And Kai talks about the
stigma of mental illness in the black community. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] – I really see Minority
Mental Health Month as a great opportunity. My anxiety really reached its
peak during my college years. And during this time I
experienced firsthand the huge stigma
that mental health has in the black community–
primarily from my family. I mean, there was a moment
that my family really discouraged my
treatment– discouraged me from getting a therapist–
because they thought I would be blackballed,
that I wouldn’t be able to get a job
coming out of college, and that I’ll be labeled
crazy my whole life. That wasn’t really the case. I have a job right now. So it’s really important
that we talk about it. That was one of the
huge things that really kept me from talking
about my experience. Currently, I’m working. I’m speaking on
Active Minds’ bureau, and I’m proud to say that I’m
no longer actively afflicted by my anxiety– primarily due to meditation,
exercise, and therapy, of course. These are the things
that really keep me calm, and I’m really
grateful for them. We have made a considerable
amount of progress in bringing mental health
to the forefront– making it a very popular conversation
within the country. Of course, thank
you to the news. Thank you to entertainment. But there’s still
more work to do. And I’ve really
dedicated my life to helping to continue
this conversation. Thank you. [END PLAYBACK] TARYN FINLEY: You know, I got
a bit emotional watching that, because Kai’s story is my story. I too was in
college, and I didn’t know where to look
for help, because it had been so stigmatized. Stephanie, when we talk
about these barriers, especially in
communities of color, around seeking counseling
for mental health, how can we play a role
in tearing them down? How can colleges
specifically play a role in tearing them down? STEPHANIE PINDER-AMAKER:
Well, first of all, there’s a little bit of
good news regarding stigma and mental health
on college campuses– and that is that it’s
lower than it’s ever been in the history of this country. And so that’s encouraging. We want to keep trending
in that direction. But we also know that stigma,
as has just been mentioned, continues to be a
barrier, specifically to treatment, and to
other resources that might be helpful and supportive
to students as they’re not finding their way
on college campuses. Students who are feeling or
experiencing marginalization relative to certain
aspects of their identity, as the young brother was
saying, maybe already feeling marginalized due to
race and ethnicity. But it might also be
compounded by marginalization due to maybe sexual, gender
identity, or minority status– or religion, or
being a young person who’s from a low socioeconomic
background navigating a campus that’s predominantly
privileged and affluent. For universities– for
staff, administrators, and professionals– it’s incumbent upon us to
really work with students. The good news– there’s a little
bit of additional good news– we don’t have to guess
about these barriers. We can engage students
directly, and let them tell us what’s getting in the way. We also have a significant
amount of literature and research to build upon. So these things aren’t known. We want to be careful that
we’re not burdening students excessively, by requiring
them to come to us and tell us things over and
over again that we already know. But we know that stigma
can often be a barrier. But it might not be a barrier. It might be a disconnect,
as we spoke about earlier– like a lack of awareness that
a certain set of symptoms might actually be a diagnosable
and treatable mental illness. A barrier might
be the perception that the places that are
designed to support and work with me on campus, I
don’t see my identities reflected in those spaces. And so I wonder whether
the staff there really have the multicultural
competence that they’re going to need to
truly understand my experience as a
certain student, who brings a specific
constellation of identity. Again, the pressure is
on college and university administrators, staff,
and professionals to really actively
work with students, to identify and
remove these barriers. And also, if I can
add, in the meantime, while doing that,
also let students tell us where the
barriers– where there’s a lower resistance. So it’s important for us to
take multi-culturally-informed programming, resources,
and services, and situate them in
the places on campus and among the community
where students tell us they already feel safe. Ideally, hopefully, that’s
going to be in your counseling and psychological services. But it might not be. They might say, you
know, I actually feel safer in the
multicultural center, or in the student union,
or in the BLGTQA office. Some students are
telling us, I’d actually like to have this
information accessible and embedded in my course
curricula, and in the syllabi. Which is a wonderful way
of conveying to the campus that, you know what, this
is a campus-wide priority. It’s not just incumbent
upon students of color to grapple with these issues. We’re going to make it a focus. We’re going to
elevate the knowledge base of our entire
campus community, and integrate this very
important information into the day-to-day
course curricula. TARYN FINLEY: I want
to piggyback off of that, Dr. Williams. Because you cannot have a
conversation about what you can do for students overall without
thinking about identity– without thinking about,
specifically, racial identity. Dr. Williams, why is
it important that we do include creating
these spaces, where we can speak and embrace
differences in identity and racial background? Why is that important in this
discussion about mental health? DAVID WILLIAMS: Well, I think
we have heard from several of the panelists, and
from the testimony we’ve heard from persons
speaking on video as well, that there is a
sense of otherness. There’s a sense of not
feeling that you belong. So one of our challenges– I think on the university,
but in our society more generally– is
to create safe spaces, where people can talk, where
people can be themselves– where people can
even talk about race, and feel free to make mistakes–
and not to get the words right, and then people jump on you. So we do need to think of how
we can create safe spaces, for that interaction that deals
with the multicultural contexts in which we live– and where we can really truly
learn to appreciate and value each other. TARYN FINLEY: Yeah. David Rivera, how do we do that. Especially, we are
constantly seeing stories come out about
how students of color are being attacked– not only with microaggressions,
but with macroaggressions on campus. So how do we reverse
that, and make sure that we are creating
these spaces where we can talk about race? DAVID RIVERA: So going off
of what Dr. Williams shared about the need to
create these spaces, these microenvironments
on college campuses, where students can feel comfortable–
where they can feel brave, courageous, to come and
share their experiences in an authentic way–
is extremely important. We need multiple spaces. We need spaces that
are affinity groups. Or affinity spaces, where
like-minded students that have a similar background
can come and kind of vent with each other about
their experiences that they’re having on
campus– to find that support. And I teach group counseling. And there’s a therapeutic
principle called universality, that occurs in group therapy. That idea that I’m
not alone in this. Students are often finding
that they’re alone in this. So if we can create more
spaces to bring them together, and hopefully start
admitting more, and including more staff and
faculty of color, that can be a part of the issue. I did some studies when
I was in grad school with my mentor on
difficult dialogue, Derald Wing Sue at Columbia. And what we found is that
most difficult dialogues in the classroom about race were
instigated by a microaggression happening. And so we need to interact with
the microaggressions overtly. We can’t let them slide. And we also found that
oftentimes these conversations need to be instigated. So we can’t just rely on
students taking the initiative to have these
discussions themselves. They already are. But we need to instigate
these conversations on campus, by having different series. At Queens College
where I teach, we have a courageous
conversation series, that focuses on different
sociopolitical topics that people often have
an issue talking about. If any issue is
taboo in society, it’s going to be
taboo on campus. And issues of race, sexuality,
religion, politics, we know those are kind
of taboo topics. But those topics carries
significant impact on the daily lived
experiences of people, and we need to start
talking about them more. So instigating
these conversations is paramount for institutions. TARYN FINLEY: Yeah. John, how do we level the
playing field, so that students of color know that not only
their mental health matters, but also so that they
have adequate access to these counseling services? JOHN SILVANUS WILSON:
I want to address that. But I also want to
say that I’m deeply compelled by all of the data
from the three doctors here, and the testimony on tape. And just hearing that reminded
me of my own student days at Morehouse. I know you can relate to this. You’re a Howard grad. TARYN FINLEY: Yes. JOHN SILVANUS WILSON: But just
imagine going to a campus where you– my residence hall
was WEB Du Bois Hall. I worshiped in Martin
Luther King Chapel. I could hang out with friends
in Frederick Douglass Commons. The place said repeatedly,
this place is for you. So whereas the
student’s testimony was that his anxiety spiked
when he went to college, mine got erased. It was because the institution
sent the signal to me that I belong. So fast forward, to
get to your question. Harvard is now on a pathway
to be exemplary in this area, after 380 years. [LAUGHS] Drew Faust
was the president, and I give her a nod,
who said, you know, maybe the way we’re wired– maybe our hardware
having been designed for a single audience for pretty
much 3 and 1/2 centuries– privileged white males
from New England. And then, diversity, in the
mid part of the 19th century, was defined as white males
from outside New England. That became diverse. [LAUGHTER] So that became diverse. But over the ’70s, you get
people of color coming in, and you get the non-merger
merger with Radcliffe. So women and people of color
are now in the environment. Drew Faust, on her
watch as president, suggested that maybe the way we
have been designed and set up for that audience is not
suitable for what she called groups previously excluded. And so now we’re on a pathway– Harvard University– to
become the recognized leader in what we
call sustainable inclusive excellence, by
fostering a campus culture where everyone can thrive. And in the back of
my mind that means fostering the kind
of campus culture that I experienced as
an undergraduate, where I could thrive. They held a crown over
my head, and expected me, challenged me to grow
tall enough to wear it. When I came to Harvard,
they held a question mark over my head. And I felt the institution
was causing me to ask, do I belong here? I rejected that question,
because I had gone to Morehouse and I was quite confident. So everything we’re
trying to do right now from the office
of the president is about creating a campus
where everyone can thrive. And that’s the pathway we’re on. I believe we’ve done a number
of things coming out of the box. We had the largest survey
in the history of Harvard– 24,000 people filled out this
survey, 44% of the campus. We now have data from people all
over Harvard that will tell us who feels like they
belong and who doesn’t. We have strategic plans
developing all over campus. We have a culture lab. We’re standing up. We’re doing innovation
funding, to stimulate ideas coming into us. There’s a lot going on. In the report that was written
under Drew Faust toward the top of the Task Force on Inclusion
and Belonging– their report– was, pay attention
to mental health. This is where it’s particularly
dangerous and important. You can’t presume
that the mental health services you have set
up for one audience is suitable for all audiences. I know Dr. Pinder-Amaker
is on the committee to help us overhaul
what we’re doing there. We’re also getting advice
from the Steve Fund. If I don’t believe
you want me here, I’m not inclined to come
in and get your services. So trust is how this
is going to change. TARYN FINLEY: Yeah. Stephanie, we can’t ignore
students transitioning from secondary schools. I know this conversation
has been more focused on students who go straight
to four-year schools. But I’m wondering,
how can we best offer the support needed for
secondary-school students aiming to transition
to four-year schools? STEPHANIE PINDER-AMAKER:
So I love this question. Because everything that we
know from all of the experts here on the panel, and
this field more broadly around the world, suggests that
one of the things we have to do is we’ve got to begin these
discussions and this dialogue long before students
arrive, or get ready to make that transition
from high school to college. So there’s a lot of
emphasis, and energy, and enthusiasm about working
with secondary-school students, and ensuring that they have
the emotional preparedness to make a transition to
college successfully. We know by definition that
transitions are always, or can be points of
vulnerability for students– whether it’s a transition
from high school to college, from a
gap year to college. A leave of absence for a
mental health reason and return to school. These are all vulnerable
points for students. And so we want to make sure
that our students have the skill base and the knowledge. We’re out there working with
partners in the community, teaching 9th graders, 10th
graders, 11th graders, and 12th graders
what to look for. What are the signs
of depression? What are common
symptoms of anxiety? We’re working with
these students. A shout out to the
MGH Youth Scholars. They’re a big partner of
ours in the community, with the McLean College
Mental Health Program. These students are amazing. They are fierce and
fearless as they’re leaning into these
discussions, learning about depression and anxiety. What is it going to mean? And also, we’re putting this in
the context of social-cultural identities– all of the range of
identities that Dr. Rivera was talking about earlier. And helping students
at a younger age begin to think about, well,
with my individual unique set of intersecting identities,
what strengths can I draw upon to prepare me emotionally for
the transition that’s coming? And relatedly, also in the
context of those identities, where might I anticipate
some of these barriers? And most importantly, what can
I do when I encounter them? What are the skills? And these students are amazing. They give me so much
hope for the future, because they love
these discussions. They’re learning these skills. And they’re going out into
the world, on college campuses all over the country,
with a stronger level of emotional preparedness
for this transition. TARYN FINLEY: In all
of these factors, from transitioning to
college, to being othered, and potentially dealing
with a mental illness, can leave one feeling
really hopeless. Dr. Williams, I’m wondering, how
do we combat that hopelessness, and still hope? DAVID WILLIAMS: There’s
some studies that have been done with minority
students in college, and in middle and
high school, that have shown fairly
dramatic effects. They fall into a
general category of what we call values
affirmation interventions. They’re interventions
that enable young people to
affirm who they are, and who they are
as an individual. And what the research has shown,
they have had dramatic effects. I mean, the effects are so
stunning, although they’re elegantly done,
randomized-controlled trials, and all of that. But the effects are so
stunning that some people said, it can’t be true. You can’t have a
single intervention that leads to improved
psychological well-being, that dramatically improves
academic performance, helps people feel good
about themselves– overcome some of the barriers
of stereotype threat, and not feeling
that you’re capable, that many students have. So I think there are
those kinds of resources that play a difference. Your experience also made me
reflect on my own experience in graduate school. I went to graduate school at
the University of Michigan. It was a very elite program,
one of the top three programs in my field. At the time there was a
certain sense of intimidation that I felt of whether I
really belonged or not. And it made a difference to me. And I can’t tell
you how it started. But all of the students
of color formed a group. There were about seven of us– Latinx, one Pacific Islander,
African American, Asian– and we called
ourselves The Family. And we met. The biggest challenge
in our first two years was the quantitative
courses, statistical courses we had to take, where we would
spend about 20 hours a week just completing the assignments,
just with statistics. And we were The Family. And our motto was,
nobody is going to fall through the cracks. And I think that
cohort and that support made a world of difference. I don’t know that I
would have made it through without The Family. TARYN FINLEY: I love that. I love that so much. Dr. Rivera, this
next one’s for you. How can colleges ensure, not
only inside the classroom, but also out, that culture
isn’t reinforcing stereotypes? DAVID RIVERA: It’s
a great question. So part of what we need
to do is reconceptualize where these issues
are emerging from. For all too long,
people of color have been pathologized
and marginalized– have been led to believe
that they themselves are deficient in
some kind of way, because of all of the
societal messages that have been sent over the generations. How communities of color have
been mistreated in the health care system. We think about the Tuskegee
syphilis studies, for example. There is still a legacy
of those studies, that are impacting how
people of color understand and interact
with the health care system, including mental health. And so who is really sick? In my perspective it’s the
institution that’s sick. I think that picture is
being drawn pretty clearly by my esteemed
colleagues up here. And so institutional
interventions need to take
priority, in addition to developing
culturally-relevant techniques for the students. And I think that’s a way
that the institution can help to minimize the number
of harmful interactions– of microaggressions,
of discrimination, of other insidious
issues that are embedded within the institution. But the institution has to
take a hard look at itself, identify where these
deficiencies lie within themselves–
like Harvard is doing. I’m really glad to hear that my
colleagues are being very open about what’s going on here
because they can serve as a very helpful example
to what institutions can do, in terms of really centering
the voices and experiences of students– and of other
marginalized folks as well– in order to make their
institution the institution for them– where they
don’t have to feel like, I’m an outsider here. As John mentioned before, he
attended an institution that was made for him initially. And that’s fantastic. But most of our institutions
across this country were not made for
the marginalized. They were made for the
success of the privileged. And they are still kind
of operating that way, unfortunately. TARYN FINLEY:
Stephanie, could you discuss the Steve Fund’s equity
and mental health framework as a path toward solutions? STEPHANIE PINDER-AMAKER: Sure. The Equity in Mental
Health Framework is a set of evidence-based
guidelines– recommendations– that institutions of higher
education, administrators, faculty, staff can
follow in seeking to create campus
environments that are more supportive of the
overall health and well-being of students of color. The guidelines were
created by the Steve Fund, in collaboration with
the Jed Foundation and with McLean’s College
Mental Health Program. And we surveyed institutions
of higher education across the country. We surveyed students. We convened experts and
leaders in higher education. And we also reviewed
the literature, to really come up with an
evidence-informed foundation for these recommendations. And so the
recommendations are great. Anyone can access
them by just going to EquityInMentalHealth.org. And there are toolkits now,
that are evolving in support at the 10 guidelines. And just to give you an example,
a couple of the guidelines. One is to make sure that
college campuses are recruiting, and training, and retaining
faculty and professional staff who represent
multicultural diversity, but are also
multi-culturally competent. There’s some incredible,
innovative programming happening on these campuses
around the country. But as we seek and
initiate this programming, we also need to do
a really good job of assessing the effectiveness. This programming, did
it really move the dial? Is it elevating mental health
outcomes, or academic outcomes for the students, in the ways
that we think it might be? Because that evidence
base will continue to build upon this very
important knowledge base, so that we can share
this information and continue to get better– directed by the
research evidence regarding best practices in
this very important area. TARYN FINLEY: Yeah. John, what are some
resources that you think colleges can benefit
from in addressing these issues and moving towards more equity,
when it comes to mental health? JOHN SILVANUS WILSON: Well,
first of all, this panel– the resourceful minds on
this panel are very good. You can listen to
this, and probe a many of the things being said here. I mentioned the Steve Fund. They are very
resourceful for Harvard, and I think other institutions. But I really do
think this has to be an institutional priority,
in order for anything to happen in this space. We’ve had diversity
in American higher ed for the last 50 years. Nobody has gotten this right. No institutions are
exemplary Harvard wants to be number one
in everything else, and we’re going to be
number one in this. And we’re on that pathway now. Here’s what I want
to really emphasize. What we’re doing right now–
what we’re discussing here– is so important to
this entire country. Because we’re making decisions
now about the pathway– the direction of the country. And I think there is
a lesson from Harvard. Because we have
decided, with the task force that I mentioned,
that we are not going to reverse the
diversity that we have. We’re going to harvest it. We’re going to make sure we
get the best out of everybody in this environment. Our current president,
Larry Bacow, has said that Harvard has
been excellent for 383 years. But now, we’re going
to go on a pathway to realize true excellence. And you can only get true
excellence from diversity. You’ve got to harvest
the diversity you have. That’s a lesson for
the whole country. And Harvard is older
than the country. So it’s the broader vision. And I’m telling you, the
best way to get this done is to start at the top. The institutional leadership
has to make a commitment to getting this right. And I promise you, the
conversations, the resources– all that has to happen in an
institution, to get it right, will begin to flow. But until the leadership
prioritizes it, it’s not going to happen. TARYN FINLEY: We’re going
to go ahead and move on to questions from viewers. Our first question
comes from Heather. Heather is a health teacher
in a high poverty area. She says, “Many students are
the first in their family to attend a secondary
school, and some may be even the first
to graduate high school. And this is very
overwhelming for many. What are some suggestions
for these students to start mentally
preparing for this change, and some simple ways to deal
with their emotions as they transition?” David, you’re nodding. I’ll go ahead and go
to you, Dr. Rivera. DAVID RIVERA: Some
of the favorite work that I do as part of my advisory
role with the Steve Fund is addressing the educational
pipeline from as early as possible. As we know, Dr. Williams shared
those alarming statistics regarding suicidality, and
suicidal ideation rates. These issues just don’t
occur once somebody turns 18. Sometimes there are
some other issues that have been long-lasting
needs to be attended to. And so whenever I speak
with younger people that are pre-college, I feel
like I have access to a mind that I can hopefully
help influence– that they can enter college
with some of these tools about knowing how to
manage your mental health. Developing regular and
frequent mental health checks for oneself, right? Encouraging families
to start open dialogues regarding wellness and
mental health, right? We need to start changing the
narrative of mental health. And the only way that we can
do that is by talking about it. Mindfulness is a huge thing now. There are so many
apps for mindfulness. NIH is sponsoring
mindfulness-related research projects, et cetera. I know that even kindergartners
and younger are learning mindfulness techniques. And there’s a lot
of wealth within that mindfulness technique,
that also probably originates from communities
of color, as well. So it kind of matches their
cultural practices and milieus, if you will. So I think that it’s
important that we start as early as possible. And there’s some very tangible
things that we can do. Mindfulness, frequent
mental health checks, and just dialoguing about
these issues overall. TARYN FINLEY: Of course. Dan Kelly, who is a
reporter/columnist from the Reading Eagle
says, “We hear sometimes that schizophrenia and
other mental maladies onset when young people
go away to college, or get into their late
teens and early 20s, due to the stress of
living away and having to make their own way in the
world for the first time. Is the college
experience more intense, or more likely to cause a
student of color to ‘snap’? Or less likely, or no
statistical difference?” DAVID WILLIAMS: I don’t know
the answer to that definitively. But I would say, as
has been mentioned, that most mental illnesses
begin in adolescence and early adulthood– most. And that’s across the board. It’s not a US phenomenon. That’s globally true, in the
World Mental Health Program. And so the college experience
opens another Pandora’s box for individuals, that are
at a stage of life dealing with emotional challenges. So I think it could
make things worse, but I also think it’s
also that stage of life, and the added challenges
that individuals face. That can be a real problem. TARYN FINLEY: Yeah. We have a question
from Robin, who says, “We have a diverse
staff, and have been successful in servicing most
constituencies. But it has been a challenge
getting the Latinx students to engage in treatment. We have two clinicians
of Latinx heritage, and we also partner with a
Latinx advisor on programs. It seems that when
Latinx students struggle, they are more likely to go
home, which has implications for their retention. Any suggestions for
creative ways or programs to reach this population?” DAVID RIVERA: I can talk a
little bit about that one, as well. And again, through the Steve
Fund, one thing that we find is that it’s important to engage
friends and family– the peer and family support
networks of students. Of all students, but of
students of color in particular. We find that
students of color are more likely to go to
their family and friends for support, by and
large, than they are to go to a campus
resource for support. Only around 6% or 7% will
actually go see a mental health clinician on their campus. That’s way, way too low. So what we need to do is engage
the natural support systems that are already there,
and already probably functioning well. But those support
systems might not know what to do, in terms of
supporting their children who are dealing with
wellness compromises. And so the Steve Fund
has a number of resources in our knowledge center. If you go to
SteveFund.org, a couple webinars that
address how parents can support their students of
color during the college years, and through the transitions
that they’re going through. So a lot of it is just
a literacy in a way– mental health literacy–
and promoting that across the communities that
are already there– already ready to engage and
support the students naturally. JOHN SILVANUS
WILSON: I think what you see happening, particularly
in that answer from Dr. Rivera– and it’s just like
David’s answer– we find ways to cope as
communities on these campuses. And I do think it’s good. But I don’t want
that to be a reason to bypass the institutional
responsibility. I started my career at MIT. And after a few years there,
the head of career services– one of the services offices– came in. We were having this
discussion– a group of us. And he was frustrated
because the students of color were not using his
office as much as others. And it was pretty consistent. And at one point I
simply said, they’re probably not coming to your
office for the same reason why they’re not going to that
barber shop in the student center. Because they can
just look, and it won’t be instinctive for
them that there are people– if all the barbers
look like Donald Trump, for instance,
people are not going to be inclined to come in. They’re not going to guess that
you know something about me. So if you shift that
to the medical realm, boy there is high risk in
students struggling deeply, and not trusting the offices
that they may or may not be aware of are
there to help them. So it’s the institution’s
responsibility to lower the barriers, and not
leave the healing to our sub families– when we get together. We did that at Harvard
in graduate school, sure. We kind of recreated our
Morehouse experience. Because I knew that that was the
most psychologically wholesome four-year period of my life. And I knew where it came from. It came from the sense
of family that we had, and everybody was
supporting each other. So yes, students are going
to continue to do that. But the institution
has a responsibility to facilitate that, and
to be that environment. So we’re not looking for these
pockets, these safe spaces. We want the whole campus
to be a safe space– the whole community
to be a safe space. TARYN FINLEY: That’s a good
segue into the next question, which comes from Bianca. “How can we hold institutions
accountable to improving the care of students
of color that have failed to follow through?” JOHN SILVANUS WILSON:
I go back to the issue of an institutional priority. The accountability has
to start at the top. The president, the board, the
leaders of the institution have to care about this. I turn to the
demographic imperative. Look at the country. Look at the constitution
of your campus. Look at the makeup. And if there is a
disjuncture, ask why. If the academic performance
rates are different, ask why. If the graduation rates
are different, ask why. You could do a survey,
as Harvard did, and find out whether
people are thriving or not. And if your survey
is as good as ours, you’ll get some indicators
as to why that is, or why that is not. So it starts with
caring about it. And I believe the
accountability comes when enough professors,
enough staff, enough students challenge the leadership
to get this right. STEPHANIE PINDER-AMAKER: We
saw that happen nationally in this country. It was just truly a watershed
moment in the mental health of young people of color. In the academic year 2015
and ’16, students of color really made their voices
heard around the country. They began protesting that
their needs were simply not being met on campus. And for the first time in
the history of this country, as was mentioned
briefly earlier, but I think we can’t emphasize
this enough, students of color placed mental health needs
and concerns on that list. So that was a driving force. You better believe that
there was accountability. Campuses were reaching out,
scrambling to figure out, what do we do? How do we respond to these
students who are, rightfully so, really distressed about
not having their needs met in this realm. And so it’s really
a powerful moment, that I think has really helped
to turn the tide in this area TARYN FINLEY: Yeah, definitely. Unfortunately, that was
the time for questions. But I do want to wrap with a
key takeaway from each of you on a takeaway or a
solution than you hope that today’s viewers
get from this conversation. We’ll start with David. DAVID RIVERA: So I talked
about narrative already. As a therapist I rely
on narrative therapy and theoretical principles. Knowing that when we think
about mental health for people of color, there’s a certain
narrative that overly pathologies people of color– invalidates people of color. Takes a universalistic
perspective, treating people of color
through a colorblind lens. And that just causes more harm. So my takeaway, and
kind of a challenge, is that we need to change this
narrative of mental health for people of color,
and for everyone, by talking about
it more overtly. Someone mentioned having
it on a syllabus, right? I’m encouraging people to
discuss their mental health needs, their mental
health stories. My idea of mental
health and healing is not the same as anybody else. I’m taking a culturally
humble perspective, where I’m going to want
to first understand the perspective from the
person I’m working with. And so I encourage
everybody who’s either here or watching this to
have at least one conversation about your mental health today. One conversation, that can
have a lot of power for you cathartically, in terms
of releasing something. But it can be a great role
model for somebody else to possibly take that first
step to seek out support. TARYN FINLEY: Stephanie? STEPHANIE PINDER-AMAKER:
That’s really a great idea. One of the most effective
ways of reducing stigma is hearing directly from people,
like the lived experience of the young brother, and the
young people who spoke earlier today. My takeaway is
specifically for students. And I want to speak
to any student who’s tuning in to this panel. Any student who
might be experiencing a level of distress
that’s persistent, or that’s so significant that
they’re having difficulty functioning– if they’re
feeling persistent feelings of hopelessness, thoughts
of hurting yourself, urges to attempt suicide,
it’s important to know that you may very well have
a common mental illness. And it’s not your fault. These
illnesses are very common, and they’re very treatable. And so I want to encourage you
to remember that you earned the right to matriculate
on that college campus, within that college
community, wherever you are, and strongly encourage you not
to let anyone or anything get in the way of receiving the
proper support, and potentially treatment, that you deserve. DAVID WILLIAMS: I
would add two things. One is, I think we need to
understand mental health comprehensively, and
in the larger context of the individual’s life. So we do need to provide
a treatment, and so on. But we need to think what we
do with the larger environment. How do we build job readiness
and service-learning opportunities, so
that individuals feel empowered,
and feel they have skills to look to the future? And my second challenge,
specifically for universities– in this moment of US
history, universities need to exercise
greater leadership in confronting some of the
myths, and mythologies, and the environment that’s
creating all of this hostility. In the last six months,
I have become a member– I don’t know why. I receive every three
or four weeks an email from a white-supremacist group. It’s a long diatribe. What is disturbing about it
is that it appears credible. They’re citing studies. They’re citing sources. They’re citing
newspaper articles. If you read it, it looks
completely reasonable and evidence based. What are we doing as
academic institutions to confront this
diatribe that’s out there within our communities, and
within our larger societies? JOHN SILVANUS
WILSON: And I would close with, I would speak
to institutions as well, and institutional leadership–
and say that institutions are like individuals. That is, who we were is
still a part of who we are. And if most institutions
that we’re talking about here were born in a time of
segregation and racial hate, and we were kind of
situated that way, then we need to examine
ourselves right now– and discover the degree
to which who we were still part of who we
are, and make sure that we are now
positioning everyone who comes to our campus to thrive. TARYN FINLEY: Thank you so much. This was such a
powerful conversation. Thank you, all panelists. Thank you all in the audience
and at home for tuning in. Please join us for
our next forum– “Drug Resistant Infections,
Confronting an Escalating Crisis,” which will be
on October 11 at noon. Thank you all. AUDIENCE: [APPLAUSE] [MUSIC PLAYING]

Daniel Yohans

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