By Adam Powell
There’s an old saying, “when White people get a cold, Black people get pneumonia.”
Never has this saying been more accurate than when looking at the differing impact COVID-19 has had on Black and White students. While all K-12 students suffered at the hands of the pandemic in a number of ways, the collateral damage was disproportionately carried by Black youth. Academically, Black K-12 students lost up to a whole year of schooling, far more than their white peers. Socially and psychologically, the movement to online platforms harmed all youth, especially given the mental health crisis already looming for the demographic. But, the closure of public schools impacted Black students more profoundly, especially since they were more likely to receive school-based mental health services, by orders of magnitude. As a result, rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety swelled for Black K-12 students, and with the primary avenues for mental health services constrained; identification, diagnosis, and service utilization plummeted.
Black college students did not fare much better. Facing a similar mental health crisis on their campuses, regardless of university size, demographic composition, reputation, or academic focus; the higher education mental health epidemic displays familiar racial disparities. Similar to their K-12 counterparts, Black college students are significantly less likely than their white peers to receive a clinical diagnosis or misdiagnosis for mental health issues, even when they clearly meet a set of clinical criteria. This becomes even more problematic when considering collateral effects related to service utilization; Black college students are about half as likely as white students to receive treatment for a serious significant mental illness. While some of these differences can be attributed to help seeking behavior, stigma, and resource availability, the racialized character of treatment gaps points to an urgent need for intervention.
Indeed, K-12 public schools began to rebuild programs that attend to students holistically, establishing schools as central points for resource acquisition. Armed with a newfound appreciation of the ways in which personnel can use online platforms in the service of student mental health needs, although not a perfect substitute for face-to-face contact, K-12 schools are now viewed as integral to the wellness of their students. Likewise, K-12 schools are highly attuned to the pressures facing elementary and secondary students, as is the public, and thus public schools, supplemental education providers, and staff have augmented efforts to institute programming related to mental health digitally and in person, identify students who are struggling early on, and wrap them in a continuum of care.
As have historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs); now numbering over 100 nationally, although concentrated in 19 states, they makeup a small fraction of the overall higher education landscape. Yet, they are powerhouses when it comes to educational outcomes and the promotion of economic mobility, while simultaneously serving a larger proportion of traditionally underserved and low-income students, and charging less in tuition than most predominantly white institutions (PWIs). Although many of these venerable institutions could be characterized as small, almost one fifth of all African American college graduates come from HBCUs. Fortunately, I count myself among them.
Nevertheless, even within HBCUs, where the campus climate shields attendees from much of the discrimination, bias, and microaggressions that contribute to racial trauma and stress, we cannot fully isolate students from the larger world. We cannot nullify the long-term effects of social inequality, economic insecurity, nor the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Black students, on average, already faced increased socioeconomic stressors, lower quality K-12 preparation, racism, and discrimination
before arriving on campus, but now were confronted by employment disruption, food insecurity, technology gaps, and a higher likelihood of negative health outcomes for family members who contracted the virus all while mental health access was challenged by closures, off campus residence, and incomplete staffing. Particularly for students of color, of any age, whether on a college campus or in a public K-12 school, school-based services matter.
Looking at mental health among HBCU students during the pandemic, the trends mirror the K-12 system, showing substantial increases in depression and anxiety, which are typically lower for African American students enrolled at HBCUs when compared to those attending PWIs. Notwithstanding the structural barriers to treatment, social and historical factors [like distrust of mental health professionals] already reduce the willingness to seek help even when it is available. Online instruction and dorm closures, however, contributed to increased isolation for many HBCU students, predominantly Black, a feeling they were likely unfamiliar with given the supportive and welcoming environment on campus and the close connection they report feeling. While HBCU students managed somewhat better than their peers at PWIs, the resources initially dedicated to and available for mental health interventions were limited because our HBCUs tend to receive fewer resources. Historically though, they have managed to do more with less, and create meaningful and powerful networks of support.
HBCUs provide a distinct opportunity to change the culture surrounding mental health, continue working to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, and address persistent under diagnosis and misdiagnosis for our African American students. In true form, our HBCUs across the nation have already begun the work of reorienting campuses to mental wellbeing, directing additional resources, staffing, and training to address mental health, engaging in meaningful conversations to destigmatize mental illness, launching awareness campaigns, and seeking out targeted funding and partnerships to develop innovative programming. Similar to their K-12 counterparts, HBCUs have developed rapid assessment strategies within campus counseling centers, and trained faculty to be “first responders” using programs like Mental Health First Aid and referral systems.
We are uniquely poised at our HBCUs to continue serving the historically underserved, and mental health is simply a new arena in which we can rise to the challenge as we have done in the past. By doing so, we can prove once again that we are, in fact, SWAC.
Adam D. Powell
President & CEO
Communities In Schools of the Dallas Region