There’s a growing number of Black college students experiencing depression, but campuses can help those in crisis.

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Starting college can be an exciting experience in a young person’s life, but it can also be stressful.

You’re on your own, and you’re thrust into a new environment where you may not know anyone or be around anything familiar. You’re now responsible for cleaning your own room, preparing or getting your own food, and getting to all your classes on time.

These and other issues could lead to negative emotions or mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.

For Black or African American students, the added stress of racism, financial worries, and the pressure to overachieve put them at a higher chance of developing a mental health condition.

The pandemic and the recent string of racial injustices only increases this likelihood even more. For many Black students, these issues go undiagnosed, and therefore, untreated.

Managing the symptoms of a mental health condition can affect a student’s academic performance and social experience.

But there is hope.

College campuses could offer services to help students manage their symptoms and thrive in college and beyond.

Although mental health conditions can affect any college student, Black students often experience more serious symptoms because of mental health stigma and other barriers.

  • Black Americans are 20% more likely to have serious mental health conditions.
  • About 50% of Black students report they have never received any mental health education prior to college.
  • Students of color report higher rates of emotional distress during their first year of college.
  • Nearly 34% of Black students report feeling so depressed in the past year it was difficult to function.
  • Compared to 61% of white students, 75% of Black college students report they tend to keep their feelings about how hard college is to themselves.
  • Overall, 40% of Black college students experience mental health issues.
  • Students of color are half as likely to seek treatment for mental health issues as other students.
  • Black students are more likely to seek help from religious figures during their first year of college.
  • In total, 21% of Black students with mental health issues receive a diagnosis compared to 48% of white students.
  • Black students are less likely to have health insurance.
  • Approximately 9.2% of Black students reported having serious thoughts of suicide and 1.7% report attempting suicide.

Many factors contribute to Black students experiencing depression.

Money

One major factor is the wealth gap. Black students are less likely than white students to have college money set aside, leading to suffocating student loan debt. Black students typically leave school with the highest amount of debt.

To avoid taking out loans, many Black students get jobs or enter work-study programs, limiting their time for studying and socializing.

Black young adults are also more likely to be cut off financially early into adulthood, making the transition to campus life even more difficult.

Not every Black family intends to stop supporting their child financially during their college years. It’s often done out of necessity than want.

It would take the average Black family 228 years to obtain the same wealth as a white family.

Historic racism and economic recessions have prevented Black families from obtaining and maintaining wealth.

The COVID-19 pandemic reminded how economic downturns hurt Black families, as they are more likely to experience food insecurity and have to use their savings to make ends meet.

Black students will be starting college this fall with the awareness of their family’s financial issues, which may add to the anxiety and depression they feel.

Societal pressure to achieve

While it is true that most college students experience pressures from their families and society, 18% of Black students are first-generation college students. This means that families’ success is dependent on their social mobility and access.

Education gives you access, and with that access, you can then advocate and meet the needs of loved ones facing financial difficulties.

Even for students who may not be first-generation college students, others may judge them this way due to stereotypes and racism.

Racism

Pew Research finds that the more education a person of color has, the more likely they will experience racial slurs and microaggressions — subtle or indirect forms of discrimination that are often unintentional but uphold harmful stereotypes about marginalized groups.

A few examples of microaggressions include:

  • complimenting a student with a perceived “accent” on their ability to speak English
  • assuming that a Black person is not the doctor or manager
  • acting surprised when a woman, or even a gay man, follows sports

Black students often experience these forms of racism in college because they are thrust into predominantly white institutions (PWIs).

While colleges tend to draw students from all over the country (and world), bringing people together won’t automatically make everyone more open to understanding the plights of others.

Black students are then placed into positions where they are taking classes, or even rooming, with students who have problematic views or prejudices. This is especially troublesome in elite schools, where students of color might be assumed to have been accepted because of affirmative action.

According to a Pew Research report, Black Americans are more likely to say they faced discrimination in college because of their race. In fact, slightly more than a third (36%) say they experienced it while applying or at college.

Therapy stigmas in the Black community

There is a pervasive stigma around mental health diagnoses as well as treatment. This leads to fewer Black people to seek treatment, and when they do, they often have fewer sessions than white clients.

A recent national survey shows Black students are more likely to keep their feelings about difficulties in college to themselves.

The stigma surrounding mental health treatment, the reluctance to seek help, and a mistrust of mental health professionals among students are only a few of the reasons Black students keep silent about their mental health needs.

Strong Black woman complex

This strong Black woman narrative has been studied more in recent years due to the Black Lives Matter movement.

It’s not uncommon for Black women to feel the need to shoulder through difficult times and fight alone through feelings of depression and anxiety.

No matter the cost — whether physically or mentally — Black women are expected to keep moving forward. They often:

  • take on extra tasks at work, despite already being overloaded
  • don’t accept or ask for much needed help
  • keep silent about not feeling well or feeling slighted out of fear of being perceived as weak or angry

The trope arose in response to negative stereotypes about Black people, especially women, calling them welfare queens and lazy. These stereotypes are still prevalent.

In fact, in a study of 109 white college students, participants reported they viewed Black women as strong, tough, loud, angry, and domineering. Black women were also described as less educated, even though Black women are among the most educated demographic in the United States.

It’s no wonder then that Black female students have mental health issues at predominantly white institutions. With that complex comes a need to de-prioritize self-care and power through adversity, which can be costly to their mental health.

Black students are less likely to seek counseling services on campus. Many Black students aren’t even aware of the mental health services or resources available on a college campus.

Making sure Black students know about these resources and others is one of the most important steps college campuses can take to increase awareness.

Other ways college campuses can help include:

  • hiring diverse educators and counseling staff
  • creating zero tolerance policies to combat racism perpetuated by students and staff
  • recruiting diverse students

Free counseling services and culturally competent counselors would also be helpful for Black students.

College campuses are becoming more diverse, with many Black students finding themselves on campuses with predominately white populations.

For students from areas or schools that are predominately Black or African American, walking into a classroom filled with predominately white students can be overwhelming.

You may feel out of place. Many students of color report feeling less prepared for their first year of college, emotionally and academically. But there are ways you can succeed.

Social support

Studies show that Black college students at PWIs rely more strongly on social support than white students who also attend there.

You may want to find out if your college campus has ethnic or cultural celebrations and consider getting involved.

Many students find connections and support by joining historically Black fraternities or sororities.

During this time of continued social distancing and mask requirements, it’s even more important for students to develop friendships and connections with other students.

Consider looking for new ways to connect this fall.

Spiritual or religious practices

For many Black students, religion and their faith are important. Studies suggest that Black college and graduate students often use spiritual coping tactics to manage anxiety and stress.

Spiritual coping strategies are associated with improved overall well-being and academic performance among Black students.

If you’re new to the area, you might find it helpful to see if there are religious services offered near you. There may even be services offered on campus.

Community service

Black communities have a long legacy of social service. There are often several opportunities to serve that help strengthen their families and communities.

If you’re passionate about serving others, this is a good way to connect with communities around campus and build friendships and a support network.

Consider getting involved with civic groups or churches in the area that offer serving opportunities, such as feeding the hungry or after-school tutoring.

If you’re a new student this fall or returning to school, you don’t have to go through your college journey alone.

There are ways you can connect with others and find the support and resources you need. Consider visiting your college’s student services department to find out about programs and resources.

You can also find help and support by visiting these sources.

Advocacy Groups and Student Organizations:

Mental health resources:

Scholarship and financial aid: