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‘We are all racist’: Black students face mental health trials, tribulations in higher education

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Campus’s University Health Services currently has nine Black-identified counselors, with approximately 6% of the users of its Counseling and Psychological Services being Black.


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FEBRUARY 23, 2022

Historically, higher education is a foreign entity for Black students, according to Lez’li Waller, a senior at UC Berkeley.

She likened the entry experience to an incarcerated person, following a decadelong sentence behind bars, being released and told education is their ticket to the next level of life. With no guidance, they are left astray, and often, they will fail, Waller said.

Growing out of American soil laced with racism, universities innately perpetuate the marginalization experienced across the nation; colleges are microcosms of the world around them, Waller noted. At a predominantly Asian and white institution such as UC Berkeley, the scarcity of Black students compounds existing pressures faced by the community and leads to various mental health struggles.

“While UC Berkeley certainly has a history of strengths related to various social justice movements, it’s also important to acknowledge and be aware of the history of UC Berkeley that has been oppressive to marginalized communities,” said Dr. Adisa Anderson, a licensed psychologist working in University Health Services, or UHS, on the Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, staff.

From history — applying to universities once barred to Black students to the history class itself — learning about individuals who may have at one point owned enslaved individuals, college life can be very heavy. Helping Black students feel comfortable in their own skin rests on having a robust mental health system, Waller said.

Reflecting the COVID-19 pandemic’s cultural climate, universities have become fertile grounds for racial trauma and anxiety.

As oppressive encounters in the nation continue to unfold, the demand for psychological services is increasing, and the need to improve Black student recruitment and retention is becoming more dire, according to Anderson.

“The larger university environment has to be one that promotes multiculturalism and values diversity not only symbolically but in terms of creating policies, procedures and practices that consider issues of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Anderson said. “Decisions that will essentially more effectively support and affirm the needs of African American students at UC Berkeley.”

“Look in your own backyard”: Recruitment

For those who choose and are able to, applying to colleges is the culmination of their entire lifetime of education; higher education is the pinnacle of traditional academia.

While the world awaits Supreme Court cases on affirmative action bound to send tremors near and far, Anderson underscored the importance of having admissions counselors who truly understand the experiences of Black students.

“They’re able to see the resiliency and restraints of Black-identified students when they consider their college applications,” Anderson said.

A ban on affirmative action in California schools was first approved in 1996 through Proposition 209, which took effect in fall 1998. That year marked a seismic shift in UC Berkeley’s admission of Black students as the rate dropped from 50% in 1997 to 20% the following year.

In 2021, more than two decades later, 5.2% of UC Berkeley’s admitted freshmen identified as Black, and only 3.7% enrolled in the school.

Black student organizations shoulder much of the responsibility of recruitment, Waller said, who is also the operational manager for the Black Recruitment and Retention Center, or BRRC. Funded by several campus grants, BRRC must allocate part of its money toward recruitment, which it uses in part to fly in Black students from across the state to visit UC Berkeley and live in the breadcrumbs of their potential future.

While Waller noted BRRC is very active in its work to provide resources about UC Berkeley to students of color, she alleged that campus places the onus on BRRC without doing the work itself. BRRC should be a support to campus, not the vanguard, she added.

UC Berkeley should focus its recruitment efforts in local areas around Berkeley that have significant Black populations, Waller noted.

“If you can’t look in your own backyard and find talent within the different demographics that you’re serving as an institution, something’s wrong,” Waller said.

Until UC Berkeley restores the number of Black students on campus to what it was before the sweeping ban on affirmative action, none of the diversity wins it touts about Black admissions are worth celebrating, Waller said.

Diversity is not reflected by having an African American studies department on campus — it means being a student in any major and being taught and led by Black professors and administrators, Waller said.

Recruitment is inextricably linked to diversity, Waller added, because Black students will not feel supported until they can walk into a class and be greeted by one or two classmates who look like them.

“Universities have to look at what they do as an institution to support students, not what are you asking the students to do to support themselves,” Waller said. “That is a great way to start addressing how to help Black students in their mental health in higher education.”

Under pressure

Amid societal pressures of educational attainment and excellence is a clashing history of systemic policies meant to exclude Black people from education.

Generation upon generation of people of color experience this racism, which has rippling effects on mental health, one of which is trauma, according to Allison Briscoe-Smith, child clinical psychologist and senior fellow of campus’s Greater Good Science Center, or GGSC.

Understood as an experience or event that outpaces people’s typical means of coping, trauma can not only alter people’s relationships with others but also with themselves. Trauma can lead to depression, anxiety and substance abuse, among other problems, she said.

“Despite all of that, we as a population demonstrate incredible resilience and connection and growth and capacity,” Briscoe-Smith said.

Over time, the daily slights and insults — compounded by microaggressions and jabbing judgments experienced by marginalized groups — gnaw away at people’s sense of selves, said GGSC Associate Education Director Amy Eva.

Upon crossing Sather Gate for the first time and exploring unknown campus crevices, there’s a psychological adjustment that occurs where individuals question their abilities and have to reconcile self-doubt. Known as impostor syndrome, Black students grapple with feeling truly affirmed in their Black identity, Anderson said.

When people feel like they don’t belong, they often seek to self-protect and search for coping mechanisms, which contribute to the outmigration from STEM fields and greater dropout rates among marginalized groups, according to campus psychology professor Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton.

“You’re going to disengage from the noxious environment and find a place where you do feel belonging,” Mendoza-Denton said.

Beyond the psyche, anxiety and stress can penetrate the body.

As marginalized groups battered by discrimination age over time, they are much more likely to suffer from heart attacks and develop cardiovascular diseases or diabetes due to stress reactivity compared to nonstigmatized groups, according to Mendoza-Denton.

Even when Black students have the proper mental health support and are able to make the transition to university, they are bound to deal with stereotype threat, Anderson said. This occurs when people from marginalized communities perform lower than their actual competence and knowledge levels.

In other words, a Black student may walk into an exam room and underperform because of the negative stereotypes that have been associated with their identity and the psychological toll of being in spaces that feel oppressive, Anderson explained.

Having invalidating or oppressive professors can enhance the impacts of stereotype threat, Anderson added. Instructors are constantly evaluating the work of minority students more critically than that of majority students, despite it being of the same caliber, Mendoza-Denton alleged.

“It’s so important for there to be instructors and faculty members that have an understanding of the importance of multicultural sensitivity and culturally relevant curriculums in the classroom,” Anderson said.

With so few Black students on campus, there’s more pressure on Black students to excel because they may feel like they have to represent their entire community, Anderson said.

At the same time, the lack of social support leads to feelings of ostracism and self-consciousness about participating in the classroom for fear of being misperceived.

“Black-identified students that successfully matriculate through the campus are some of the brightest students nationally,” Anderson said. “It really requires a resilient student to navigate through the barriers and complexities of being a student at UC Berkeley.”

Cemented in the brain

Humans are wired to be biased.

Behind the curtain of daily life, the brain is constantly engaging in quick cognitive shortcuts to make sense of its environment, which helps explain subconsciously why “we are all racist,” according to Eva. Once people acknowledge their implicit bias, they can begin to question themselves and take action in support of racial justice, but it can’t all occur introspectively.

“There’s no way we’re going to see all of this in ourselves,” Eva said. “It’s not going to happen unless we explicitly seek it out. Not just questioning ourselves but with kind and supportive friends who are willing to call us out.”

Practicing mindfulness is crucial to building a greater self-awareness around structural racism because it allows people to sit with their thoughts, giving them moments in time where they can just be and not judge themselves, Eva noted. For students at a high-caliber school such as UC Berkeley who put inordinate amounts of pressure on themselves, it allows them to hold their experiences in balanced awareness rather than suppress or exaggerate pain.

In the classroom, mindfulness practices can help connect students and nurture a sense of belonging by having students acknowledge each other, Eva said. She added that, at the very least, professors and people in power should take it upon themselves to create open lines of communication with others.

“I tell my students all the time, ‘Please, any time I say anything in class that makes you feel alienated, suggests some sort of prejudice … call me out on it,’ ” Eva said.

Despite social cognitive theory positing that people learn through vicarious experience and by observing the behavior of others, there’s a vacuum of role models for marginalized people in sectors such as education. From as early as elementary school, most students of color are taught by white instructors, fueling isolation among Black students as they may question, “Where are my people?” Eva said.

To help retain Black students in higher education, Anderson echoed Eva’s sentiment that there must be greater representation in academia. Seeing themselves reflected in the university environment can help Black students affirm their intersectional identities while increasing the number of staff and faculty who have a shared understanding of their struggles and needs.

Reflecting on the progress that has been made for Black people, Waller said she sees history repeating itself. At times when she feels like there have been a couple of steps forward, something else will often happen to reveal that, on the whole, the strides have been quite short.

The layered mental suffering among Black people is not just a university problem, she said, but rather a national one. However, for the handful of years Black students are at UC Berkeley, there needs to be more resources and measures in place so students have the chance to escape the hardships of the world.

“Black people have been in this country and have contributed to this country for centuries now, but it seems like when it comes to our struggles or our needs, it’s so foreign to everyone,” Waller said. “How is it that our struggle and our needs seem like a new adventure every 10 years or so?”

“Black people don’t do therapy”

The looming COVID-19 pandemic and harrowing racial violence that have transpired have brought a surge of mental suffering.

The impact looks different to many. For Briscoe-Smith, this means there’s not a vacant therapy room among her colleagues.

“Number one: There are not enough mental health services for college campuses,” Briscoe-Smith said. “Number two: There are not enough mental health and other supportive services anywhere, and that’s only been heightened in the context of the pandemic.”

Given the relative shortage of Black therapists, there are particular barriers for Black students who prefer to connect with a counselor of the same race, Briscoe-Smith said. While she noted the research on race-matching in counseling is at times controversial, being represented might facilitate people stepping into therapy.

Having shared experiences tied to racial-ethnic identity can certainly benefit the therapeutic outcome, but all counselors should be trained to provide effective services to marginalized students to meet the growing demand in mental health, Anderson said.

Black students who request to meet with a Black-identified counselor on campus can face longer wait times given the scarcity of Black therapists, according to UHS spokesperson Tami Cate.

Currently, there are nine Black-identified counselors in UHS, all of whom do not exclusively serve Black students, according to Cate. Approximately 6% of CAPS users identify as Black, with Black students representing 4% of the student population.

“We have been intentional in our hiring to increase the diversity of our staff and to have our staff be representative of the intersecting identities of our students,” Cate said in an email. “Even though CAPS is seeing Black students in numbers greater than their representation on campus, we know there is more we can do to support our Black students who experience marginalization and isolation.”

Mirroring national trends, CAPS has seen an increase in the use of its services and continues to offer both in-person and virtual mental health care, according to Cate. Students are also able to see a counselor outside of CAPS for free through the added platform “humanest,” which provides services with Black-identified counselors.

Amid an era of Zoom domination, Briscoe-Smith said she’s most worried about the ways kids of color may not be seen during this time. Children could be crumbling under stress as they help support their family, but their absence from school veils their struggles.

If mental health resources aren’t available in primary schools, asking for help and getting support won’t become normalized, Briscoe-Smith said.

“Then we fall into that trap of the stigma, which is Black people don’t do therapy,” she said.

Elementary, middle and high schools can help mediate mental health problems by providing early support to assist children with mental health concerns, such as depression and bipolar disorder.

The opportunity for intervention is “ripe” during childhood, Briscoe-Smith said, which is one of the main reasons she chose to become a child psychologist.

“We need a radical reorganization of our services and our priorities and to center the experiences of those disproportionately impacted by large system failures like racism,” Briscoe-Smith said. “What do Black students need? Let’s ask them, and let’s try to meet it.”

Contact Maxine Mouly at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @moulymaxine.

FEBRUARY 24, 2022

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