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Q&A: The Steve Fund offers guidance to help colleges promote positive mental health outcomes among students of color

Education

The Kresge Foundation Education Program connected with Dr. Annelle Primm, senior medical director for The Steve Fund. 

The COVID-19 pandemic upended learning routines for college students nationwide. For many students, decreases in predictable routines also meant increases in negative mental health outcomes.

The mental health impacts of pandemic-related disruptions are especially pronounced among students of color. Since the arrival of the pandemic, Black, Latinx, American Indian/Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and multiracial students report experiencing higher rates of depression and anxiety than white students.

Even before the pandemic, however, students of color were less likely to seek mental health supports. Students of color were more likely to report feeling overwhelmed at college and keeping their concerns to themselves. In one study, 23% of Asian-American students, 26% of Black students, and 33% of Latinx students experiencing negatives mental health outcomes sought treatment as compared to 46% of white students.

How can colleges create campus and community environments that promote positive mental health outcomes, especially among students of color?

Kresge connected with Dr. Annelle Primm a licensed psychiatrist and senior medical director of The Steve Fund, the nation’s leading non-profit organization focused on promoting the mental health and emotional well-being of college and university students of color. The Fund works with colleges, students, non-profits, researchers, and practitioners to promote effective programs and strategies that support the mental health and emotional well-being of students of color in higher education.

This fall The Fund released Adapting and Innovating to Promote Mental Health and Emotional Well-Being of Young People of Color: COVID-19 and Beyond. The report details recommendations for, “mitigating the mental health risks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic and social upheaval that has followed.” Since the recommendations were released, The Steve Fund has been partnering with several colleges, including Michigan State University, Stanford University and Westminster College, to strengthen institutional operations that promote more positive health outcomes among students.

Dr. Primm reflected on how the events of 2020 created “multilevel pressure” for many students of color and described each interaction with a student as a chance to be a resource.

Headshot of Dr. Annelle Primm, senior medical director for The Steve Fund.
Dr. Annelle Primm, senior medical director for The Steve Fund.

Kresge: Please describe the work of The Steve Fund. Based on this work, what is your sense of how students of color may be experiencing race-based traumatic stress, or racial trauma, within higher education?

Dr. Primm: The Steve Fund was created at a time when more attention was being given to incidents of racial discrimination and racial profiling on campuses around the country.

The experience of students of color has, unfortunately, been commonly marked by exposure to microaggressions, especially for students who attend predominantly white institutions and those in which students of color are the minority. Sometimes there are egregious incidents that capture headlines. But sometimes the incidents are subtle. They may happen in a classroom in which professors single out students or make them feel invisible. Or their fellow students may treat them in ways that they become isolated by not being included in different activities such as study groups.

These experiences can affect students negatively. They may begin to doubt themselves, or they may have low self-esteem, difficulty sleeping, and symptoms of depression or anxiety. All can interfere with students’ academic performance and result in them choosing to leave school.

This is a very serious matter. A challenge is that sometimes when students complain about these experiences, they are not taken seriously. They may be told they “need to suck it up.” It makes the students feel like people don’t believe them. That can lead to them not having trust and/or feeling unsafe in their higher education environments.

Kresge: In what ways are the events of 2020 – global pandemic, resulting economic recession, increased calls for racial justice – impacting mental health outcomes among students of color?

Dr. Primm: Through our Crisis Response Task Force and Youth Advisory Board, students told us that the onset of COVID-19 and the sudden closure of campuses threw them for a loop. Many were unsure where they were going to go, especially if there was conflict with families and it was unsafe to return home.

For some students, the college and university environment provided housing, food, and other resources. When they went home, they couldn’t easily access the internet or returned to a crowded environment that was not conducive to virtual studies.

It’s also important to underscore that COVID-19 has affected communities of color to a greater extent than the white population. This is especially true for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students. Among these communities, infection and death rates are higher, which means greater loss and grief. Asian students reported high rates of discrimination and attacks associated with COVID-19 being blamed on people of Asian descent.

Additionally, the infectiousness of COVID-19 has required people to physically distance from their loved ones. At a time when there’s so much stress and strife, we would normally long to embrace the people that we love. That type of closeness as demonstrated by actions such as hugging, is a part of cultural norms which have become largely unavailable due to the preventive cautions associated with the pandemic. This is a multi-layered set of adversities, and the lack of supports and comfort from loved ones is a perfect negative storm.

The killing of George Floyd – and prior to his death, the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks – was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was egregious! I think many people in the Black community, and in other communities of color, are aware that these sorts of things have been happening for hundreds of years. These violent events of unarmed people added a sense of racial trauma for young people of color because they know that could have been them.

For young people of color carrying these burdens it was a one, two, three punch. A public health emergency, resulting economic downturn, and then on top of that, this systemic racial injustice crisis. Any one of those things alone would have been enough to affect mental health. All of these things together represent unprecedented, multilevel pressure.

Kresge: How have colleges responded to the recommendations that The Steve Fund released? What type of guidance are you providing to colleges?

Dr. Primm: Several colleges have reached out because they realized they need help. They want to be more responsive and deliberate in attending to the mental health needs of students of color.

The help includes learning how to work across silos and involve not only administration, but campus diversity offices, counseling centers and other divisions that usually operate separately. Colleges that work with us receive consultation on how to change their practices and policies to support mental health and wellbeing of young people of color. The colleges are also working and learning together, so there’s a beneficial community dimension.

Kresge: How can direct service practitioners, such as a someone who might help a student with a financial aid application, integrate trauma-informed approaches into their interactions with students?

Dr. Primm: Anyone who interacts with students needs to be sensitive and to listen. Even while helping with a financial aid application, they may hear some clues that the student is struggling from a mental health standpoint. If a student is concerned about staying in school, getting a loan, or their financial situation broadly, it’s very likely there could also be some mental health concerns or some other stressors.

It’s important for those individuals to be prepared to share resources that might be helpful in dealing with stress. Being knowledgeable about The Steve Fund’s partnerships with Crisis Text Line or 7 Cups, which provides free online discussion groups, would be good in order to share with students in need. Each contact with a student is an opportunity to assist them.

This may also be a time to relax seemingly arbitrary rules and be more flexible. At the moment, we must recognize that the situations that some students are in are no fault of their own. It would mean a lot to be flexible in ways that enable students of color to continue their education, be given extra time, or just some basic consideration.

Kresge: How does this attentiveness to supporting positive mental health outcomes for students of color create a more just experience as they pursue a postsecondary education?

Dr. Primm: Higher education is intended to create an environment in which a person can grow, flourish, and contribute to society. By creating a space that is conducive to good mental health outcomes for students of color, it allows them to be comfortable and secure.

Broadly speaking, that involves a simple recognition of students’ humanity and intentionally creating environments that embrace that humanity. Specifically, that means listening to students and keeping communication lines open. That means actively seeking the voices of students of color and involving them in decisions about what happens to them and for them on campus. That also means ensuring that there are supports available for students of color and that, to the extent possible, faculty and staff reflect the diversity of the students.

The Steve Fund is supported by The Kresge Foundation’s Education Program. A $100,000 grant to The Fund supports research on the current state of mental health services available for community college students of color. Read recent coverage of the task force recommendations, New Report Addresses Mental Health of Students of Color. To learn more about how The Fund works with colleges visit www.stevefund.org or contact Laura Sanchez-Parkinson, director of partnerships, programs and research at [email protected]

Kresge staff is working remotely, and our offices are closed until further notice.  See our promise to partners during COVID-19.
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