College was extremely difficult for me. When I was an undergrad at Fayetteville State University, an HBCU in North Carolina, I juggled academics, part-time jobs, relationships and other obligations. I was a walking ball of anxiety wrapped in the “strong Black woman” trope that we all still insist on upholding. And that, if you can imagine, was five years ago — pre-pandemic.
The collective trauma of COVID-19 paired with heightened racial tension in the wake of the George Floyd protests has had a profound impact on Black students. Many counselors at Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs) are noticing this effect in their students and the heavy toll that it is taking on their mental health. After a little digging, I found that not only has the need for counseling increased among Black students, but the severity of certain mental illnesses might have too.
Sometimes, however, it’s not as easy to detect what’s clearly a crisis in the community. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the number of students seeking counseling at Southern University and A&M College is just about the same as pre-pandemic, after opening back to in-person sessions. But counseling director ValaRay Irvin explains that many of her counselors are now seeing more students presenting with increased anxiety, depression and lack of motivation.
“All of us directors have been talking about how the demand is much higher than our staff availability,” said Barnette, about counselors at N.C. A&T having difficulty accommodating every student. The university is looking for solutions, one of which is utilizing wellness apps when in-person options aren’t available.
Mallard also noted that Bowie heavily promoted their wellness center services before the pandemic. Counselors would even send surveys to students to assess their mental health. After the quarantine period though, she saw an extra push in outreach. “I think [Bowie] has always understood the mental awareness aspect, but it intensified after the pandemic. They pushed extra hard for the relationship between the staff and the students,” she said.
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Carolyn Moore, who was a counseling director at North Carolina Central University for 16 years before retiring in 2021, says she had seen a significant increase in Black students seeking counseling due to increased stress and anxiety among students. However, NCCU did find the funds to expand the program.
“I was fortunate enough to have a lot of very good support from the university. And we were able to hire additional staff,” Moore explained. “So students have not been turned away, and they did not have to wait long. Probably within 10 days to two weeks, students were able to get an appointment.”
The administrators I spoke with are innovating every day, not just by adding the option for wellness apps but with other options for students to see counselors virtually. Counselors agree, though, that dismantling stigma and providing awareness should be the first step, especially for incoming freshmen.
“We did a lot of workshops and presentations on depression and stress management and topics we felt would be helpful to students. We did work with recreation to do programming on how you can use physical exercise to manage your stress,” said Moore. “We even did mental health first aid which was courses students and staff could take… and help them recognize when they’re having an issue, and help them get to the appropriate resources they need.”
This attitude could not only end the stigma of mental health that revolves around the Black community but could also encourage students to not suffer alone. “Sometimes [students] that attend HBCUs may not have ever met with a therapist or anyone, and know what it’s like,” Barnette said. She believes that HBCUs that may not have adequate resources could partner with organizations within the community, or universities could reach out to private practitioners who do pro-bono work.
“I would like to see more conferences centered around mental health in the Black community. I don’t feel like there is enough,” Mallard said. “I think having more [mental health awareness] events and being more mindful would be very beneficial.” She also believes HBCUs could implement stress-relieving techniques such as allowing “mental health” days off for students before major exams, so they don’t have to worry about classes and can focus on studying and preparing themselves.
Irvin believes that addressing mental illness should have been a priority for Black students even back when she was an undergraduate student at Southern University 30 years ago. “You know in our community we haven’t always been comfortable with the word ‘mental health,’ and there’s still some stigma around that. I am concerned for institutions that can’t provide these services, because [mental illnesses] are far more prevalent now,” she said. “When we think about the whole student, we can’t separate their mental wellbeing from how we want them to succeed academically. It just doesn’t work that way.”
This content was originally published here.