Divided We Learn

Nonwhite students slow to seek mental health counseling for which they’re more in need

Resistance to getting help is contributing to low college graduation rates for some, say experts

Students at Harvard University have asked for more nonwhite therapists on campus.

When Karla Mendoza moved from her predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood in San Diego to go to Harvard four years ago, she felt like a minority for the first time in her life.

“I felt lonely. I felt distant. Both my roommates were white, upper-middle class,” Mendoza said. “We got along great, but when class or race issues arose, a wall came up. I felt like I couldn’t express what I felt, and they felt like I was attacking them.”

Even though she was a student liaison for mental health — she informed freshmen about the counseling available — Mendoza said she didn’t recognize her own signs of depression and anxiety.

“I would go three, four, days without showering because I couldn’t stand to be alone with myself,” she said. But she didn’t seek help.

Mendoza, 22, who ended up taking a year off before returning to Harvard this fall, illustrates a paradox: Nonwhite students are often more stressed than their white classmates, but less likely to seek psychological help.

This further complicates efforts to increase the proportion of black and Hispanic students who succeed in earning college and university degrees, and who graduate at rates lower than whites.

Related: The new minority on campus? Men

Seeking psychological help is “culturally unacceptable in the African-American and Latino communities,” said Terri Wright, executive director of the Steve Fund, a nonprofit established by the family of a black graduate student named Stephen Rose who committed suicide. The organization advocates for mental and emotional well-being for black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian college students.

Within these groups, “the words ‘therapist’ or counselor’ are loaded,” Wright said. “If you have problems, you don’t go outside your family, or maybe you talk to your faith leader.”

As much as nonwhite students resist taking advantage of mental health services, there’s evidence they’re more in need of them. More than half of black students report feeling overwhelmed most or all of the time, compared with 40 percent of whites, a survey conducted by the Harris Poll, the JED Foundation and other groups found. About half of black and Hispanic students, compared with 41 percent of whites, say it seems everyone has college figured out but them.

That’s because black and Hispanic students often carry a heavy load of stress. “[I]n addition to the stressors most students face at college — being away from home, time management — there are race-related stressors or minority-status stressors,” said Kevin Cokley, a professor of educational psychology and African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas, Austin.

These stressors include assumptions by some white students and faculty that a minority student wouldn’t be in the classroom but for affirmative action, said David Rivera, an associate professor of counselor education at Queens College of the City University of New York. That perception can make itself felt in seemingly innocuous comments such as, “‘I’m surprised you did well on that paper,’” Rivera said. “If you confront it, you’re dismissed but if you ignore it, you’re left holding on to that experience,” he added.

The polarized political climate is exacerbating the issue, those who work with students say, making many nonwhite students feel alienated, fearful and more stigmatized.

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This sense of stigma has made nonwhite students even less likely to reach out for help. As Alfiee Breland-Noble, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University Medical Center put it, “I’m already black and a woman. I don’t need to be crazy too.”

It’s not just black students. Asian students often feel burdened by a stereotype that casts them as the “model minority,” always quietly diligent and academically successful, said Doris Chang, director of clinical training and associate professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research. But she said Asian students often fear that speaking to outsiders about the burden of this stereotype will bring shame on them and their families. “By the time they come in [for counseling], they are so impaired, they are already asking for a medical leave of absence.”

Rather than waiting for students to reach the end of their mental rope, mental health counselors at some universities and colleges are going to where nonwhite students congregate. Mary Ann Covey, a psychologist and associate director of the student counseling services at Texas A&M University, remembered one black student who attended such an event and — although she was ultimately inspired to seek counseling — made it clear what the problem was.

“The first thing she said to me was, ‘African American people don’t trust white people in counseling,’” said Covey, who is white.

Related: Universities and colleges struggle to stem big drops in enrollment

But even when students acknowledge their need for support, the question remains: Who responds and how? Like their peers off campus, most university and college psychologists and therapists are white. Only 10 percent are black, 8 percent Asian, and 7 percent Hispanic, a survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors found.

If minority students “walk into a clinic and don’t see anyone who looks like them except the cleaning staff or the person at the front desk, they’re going to walk right out,” said Breland-Noble, who is also the senior scientific adviser to the Steve Fund.

In 2015, Mendoza and two other classmates appealed for more nonwhite therapists at Harvard in a column in the Harvard Crimson. They noted only 25 percent of the clinicians in the counseling center were nonwhite, compared to 40 percent of Harvard students.

Harvard wouldn’t discuss the issue, providing only a written statement saying it “has been and continues to be committed to recruiting and hiring counselors from different backgrounds.”

Other universities have managed to diversify their staffs. Texas A&M, for instance, has nine nonwhite clinicians out of 27. But the pool of nonwhite counselors and therapists to draw from is small, and burnout is high in counseling centers where the one or two black or Hispanic counselors can become the go-to people for every minority client, Covey said.

In some cases, students have stepped into the breach. For example, Project Rise at the University of Virginia, started by black students, offers peer counseling.

Recruiting nonwhite counselors is important, Rivera said, but to him all clinicians — and faculty, for that matter — need to understand other cultures. That includes understanding the experiences of others, being aware of biases, and knowing how to navigate issues of culture.

Related: New study shows more degrees earned at colleges and universities that serve minorities

Too often, he said, it’s the last part that’s missed.

Covey agreed. A white counselor might be flummoxed as to the best response when a black woman relates how she was upset when a classmate wore Confederate flag earrings to a party.

“I might say, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and try to minimize it,’” Covey said. “That’s not right. You’re not the expert.” What might the right response be? “‘That sucks.’ And then sit with it.”

Sometimes there are success stories. The black woman who told Covey that she didn’t trust white counselors wrote her a letter after completing her therapy.

“Seven months later I’m so glad that I was proven wrong, and now champion [counseling’s] cause,” the woman wrote. “I leave here today with a tool kit full of resources for when life gets tough.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our higher-education newsletter.

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