The Collegian
Sunday, June 20, 2021

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Some Black students experience mental health challenges, effects may be worsened by pandemic

<p>One of the pamphlets outlining the grievances of the Black Student Coalition on a chair at Boatwright Memorial Library on March 7, 2021. &nbsp;&nbsp;</p>

One of the pamphlets outlining the grievances of the Black Student Coalition on a chair at Boatwright Memorial Library on March 7, 2021.   

The Black Student Coalition's list of demands released on March 4, which advocates for better mental health services for Black students, highlights the unique set of challenges that Black students and other students of color face at the University of Richmond. 

The barriers that students of color face have affected the mental health of some students, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Something that everyone can kind of attest to, and I can definitely attest to, is like the fact that mental health is, in general, very low in the Black community at Richmond,” said Simone Reid, a sophomore and member of the BSC. 

While already facing difficulty managing school work and the pandemic, many Black students also struggle with facing racism and a feeling of extreme isolation on campus, Reid said. Additionally, Black students may face problems with culture and family that can take a toll on their mental health, she said. 

Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Peter LeViness reiterated Reid’s sentiments in an email to The Collegian on April 8 about what Black students experience at UR:  “(1) frequent (often daily) microaggressions that exact a cumulative toll over time; (2) subtle and not-so-subtle messages that they are not fully accepted as full and equal members of the UR community; (3) communications that state or imply that race is no longer a problem; (4) defensiveness of white student/faculty/staff when racial problems & the continued existence of racism are pointed out.” 

When faced with these additional burdens, Black students can have an increase in stress levels. These stress levels are likely to escalate due to the multitude of events in the world and on campus in the past year, Camilla Nonterah, professor of psychology, said. 

“If we know that [the pandemic] can place some burden on people, and then we know [about] last year with everything that happened with George Floyd, it's almost like for some groups of people, they're dealing with two pandemics,” Nonterah said.

Stress can affect many aspects of students' lives, such as eating poorly and sleep deprivation, Nonterah said. The cause of stress, stress itself and the effects of stress combined can create a domino effect and pull at students’ resources, she said.

Within the past decade, students of color have been reporting more depressive symptoms than white students, Nonterah said. 

Although she can only hypothesize the effects of the pandemic and racism on Black students until research is done, Nonterah believes that it is likely that students of color, particularly Black students, are experiencing an increase in stress and depressive symptoms due to the pandemic, the racism they face and struggling to find a sense of belonging on a predominately white campus, she said. 

Reid said the BSC decided that it was unfair to expect the two Black CAPS counselors to help 200 Black students who want a counselor who understands the struggles that Black people face. Not only does it make it difficult for Black students to get an appointment with one of these counselors, but it also places an undue burden on the counselors, she said.

Since releasing its demands in early March, the BSC has had a couple of meetings with CAPS, Reid said.

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“We discussed a lot about the ways that CAPS could be expanded in the future, especially Black LGBTQ+ counselors and then Black male counselors because the two counselors that we have now are Black women,” Reid said. “They are receptive to those suggestions.” 

Often, students have to overcome barriers and stigma to acknowledge that they need to seek out professional help, Nonterah said. As a result, it is important to create environments where students can feel safe to go and know they can receive the help they need, she said. 

“Getting psychological treatment, it's a very vulnerable thing,” Nonterah said. “You have to learn to trust the person. You have to learn to feel like you're not going to experience any microaggressions in the process.” 

It is important that students have counselors who can affirm all aspects of their intersectional identities, Nonterah said. This is because a therapist with the same intersectional identities as a student will be able to relate to them better, she added.  

LeViness said that even though there had been discussions with the BSC, there were no plans for new CAPS positions at the time of those discussions. However, when CAPS positions become available, CAPS is interested in adding diverse members to their staff, he said. 

“CAPS staff are committed to do our best to make our services welcoming and affirming to each student who needs us, whatever their racial and other identities,” LeViness said. “CAPS staff annually engage in continuing education activities that are designed to help us work more effectively across lines of difference, including race, gender and sexual orientation.”

During these difficult times, it is important that Black students don’t suffer in silence if they are struggling, LeViness said. Black students should know that they are not alone, and staff and faculty can be supportive and helpful resources, he said. 

All the stress that Black students feel from being in school during the COVID-19 pandemic and feeling excluded is taxing, Reid said. Therefore, it is important for Black students to take the opportunity to step back, Reid said. 

Similarly, while it is great that students are engaging in activism, students also need to take time for self-care, Nonterah said. The stress response is only supposed to be ignited for about 30 minutes, but if it is being used continuously, the body may not be able to return to the resources that it has to manage those stresses, she said. 

As a result, students need to take time to do things they enjoy because the burden of thinking about their identity and discrimination they face has an impact on health outcomes based on studies, Nonterah said. 

“If you are engaging in activism and you're not taking time to rest, you may not be there tomorrow to continue to engage in that activism,” Nonterah said. “It's very important to practice self-care and then also seek help when you need it.” 

Contact features writer Lauren Olignio at lauren.olignio@richmond.edu.

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