When Justin Phan, 20, was younger, his father and uncle struggled with addiction and were not present in his life. In seventh grade, his best friend committed suicide. And then he had his first suicide attempt as a junior in high school.
He found help with major depressive and general anxiety disorders from counselors and other resources available at the University of Texas at Austin. But now the college student struggles to get regular access to help as the pandemic has forced much of his education online.
“Not being able to accurately deal with those problems in a way I would be able to with healthy coping mechanisms, if we weren’t in COVID times, definitely sucks and was rough on my mental health,” said Phan, the son of two Vietnamese immigrants.
Phan is among the tens of thousands of college students of color in Texas who depend on school-provided mental health services that have encountered new challenges this past year.
Just like the pandemic had a disproportionate effect on people of color, students of color are also going through tremendous trauma this past year and have “this sense of hopelessness and despair about what it means to be Black or brown in America,” said Michael Lindsey, the executive director of New York University’s McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research.
In June, 25.5% of young people ages 18 to 24 reported they had seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.
Self-reported suicide attempts among Black teenagers rose by 73% from 1991 to 2017, according to a study Lindsey coauthored.
“I worry about the country’s ability to meet the mental health needs of youth college- bound students as they are contending with the trauma of the loss, the anxiety that we’re seeing and that they’ve experienced,” Lindsey said.
Neglecting one’s mental health issues can not only have a negative impact on students’ personal relationships but also on their ability to retain information, pay attention in class and their motivation to study, said Richard Lenox, the director of Texas Tech University’s student counseling center.
A major challenge for universities throughout the past year has been tackling the strong sense of isolation among their students now that most interactions happen through a screen.
After universities across the country shut down in spring, officials soon heard from students that one of their “biggest needs was that connection,” said Eric Wood, the director of Texas Christian University’s counseling center.
“They were really, really struggling with loneliness at that time in isolation,” Wood said.
Many students also don’t have a reliable internet service or a private space in their homes to talk freely.
Even when students can obtain services, it’s not the same. Phan described his Zoom session with a counselor as impersonal. The center’s virtual appointments were often booked, leaving him to wait about a month for an opening. And when he did connect with help, he often couldn’t find a room that was private enough in his home, and the talks felt rushed.
“It’s like, bam, bam, bam,” he said. “I need to get all my facts out about my whole life, my whole mental disorder history, within 20 minutes, so that we can discuss in another 20 minutes about what’s going on and then last 20 minutes about what we should do from this point on.”
Phan said he misses the way conversations were less structured when they were in person and how he was able to casually diverge into other topics and make small talk.
To help those from marginalized communities who may not have a support system at home, the University of Texas at Dallas came up with support groups for students that align with how they personally identify — such as those who are first-generation college students, Asian American or LGBTQ.
Prachi Sharma, one of the assistant directors at the campus counseling center, said it creates a more informal space that doesn’t look like traditional therapy — even if that space is now virtual.
Sharma said it is beneficial for students to speak with someone who shares a similar background or experiences. For example, Sharma speaks Hindi and often speaks with students who are more comfortable conversing in that language.
“There has been more of an intentional effort into diversifying our staff” to reflect UT-Dallas students, Sharma said.
Phan’s mother, who was born in Vietnam, has downplayed his mental health struggles, telling him that it’s just because of his personality or diet or even his day-to-day activities.
“Like it’s my fault,” Phan said, pointing out that there are heavy cultural and generational differences between the two of them.
Such cultural viewpoints can make it difficult for many to seek help from a professional, said Lindsey, noting that many communities of color traditionally resolve their emotional and psychological pain within the family.
Complicating matters even further for people of color is the “double stigma” many face because of discrimination and racism, Lindsey added.
“Our society treats people in really bad ways when they are struggling with a mental illness, be it depression or schizophrenia, whatever the case may be,” Lindsey said. “We frame people who have mental illness as being crazy. We shun them. We don’t want to include them or invite them into our spaces. It’s almost like we have this perpetual fear of those folks. Well, then imagine if you’re Black and brown.”
Meanwhile, student services are not as diverse as they should be as counselors need to be culturally competent in order to talk to and understand the unique challenges facing students who are from different communities, Lindsey said.
Many college counseling centers have done regular training in order to provide services to students from various backgrounds.
Attracting diverse staff is difficult, however. At TCU, for example, Wood has overseen the search committee for every counseling center position recently. He can count on one hand how many diverse candidates applied. He added there is a clear “need for a pipeline to have more Black psychologists or students or professionals of color get those degrees.”
The challenge is not only in finding diverse talent but also convincing them to choose their campuses when so many colleges are competing for diverse talent.
That’s why schools need to invest in creating pipelines, encouraging students of color to go into the mental health field starting as early as high school, Lindsey said.
For now, peer communities led by counselors help fill the gap.
Diane Taing, 21, a junior at TCU, is a leader in one such group. During a typical meeting, Taing begins the discussions by sharing her own story and mental health struggles, which she says helps other students feel more comfortable about opening up to the group..
Taing was sexually assaulted just before she started college, causing her to fall into a deep depression and feel confused about her feelings during her first semester.
The counseling center helped her come to terms with her feelings through its student communities.
“Being able to connect with other people who share the same experiences as me, whether that just be the depression and anxiety or sexual assault … really helped me in return,” Taing said.
As the spring semester gets underway, Sharma said universities want to expand their group programming in order to deal with the trauma students are going through because of the pandemic and to be more intentional about establishing connections for students and for college staff.
“As a country and world, I think we’re navigating quite a few challenges concurrently: a pandemic; an economic crisis; a politically polarized election we just went through; a racial justice movement; a lot of uncertainty, depression, anxiety,” Sharma said. “I also miss seeing our students in person.”
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