The coronavirus pandemic has upended the American education system at all levels, and it is taking a serious toll on student mental health and well-being.
A recent survey from Active Minds, a mental health nonprofit, found that 80 percent of the high school and college students surveyed are having difficulty concentrating. Nearly half are facing financial challenges, with unemployment, financial aid and successful distance learning among the concerns of young people.
Anxiety and depression among students have become central issues, and not all young people are affected equally.
Because of the coronavirus’s disproportionate effect on Black, Latino, Native American and low-income communities, young people of color are likely to experience an uneven share of new burdens and financial pressures, as well as worry, grief and loss at home. This situation merits immediate attention and action.
According to an NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist national poll in April, 60 percent of respondents who identified as non-white said they or someone in their household lost work hours or a job due to the pandemic, compared to 43 percent of white respondents. This additional financial strain may make attending college unrealistic for many.
A Gates Foundation survey of parents in May found that for about 60 percent of Black and Latino high school students, the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted their postsecondary plans, compared with 43 percent of white high school students. (The Gates Foundation is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)
Students of color are more likely than white students to face food, housing, healthcare and technology insecurity as a result of displacement. Groups representing Asian/Pacific Islander students are tracking discriminatory campus incidents aimed at this group and relating to Covid-19. These stressors have a cumulative effect on the mental well-being of students of color.
In the midst of sweeping changes in response to the pandemic, higher education institutions must prioritize the critical need to support student mental health — especially for students of color.
Institutions that value diversity and inclusion need to be aware of the circumstances and disparities experienced by students of color, and be flexible and creative in responding to such challenges.
Higher education institutions can facilitate access to tele-mental health care with special attention to culturally sensitive and trauma-informed practices. It’s also important for colleges and universities to elicit direct input from students of color when planning to address mental health concerns and promote peer engagement, which are critical in an era of social isolation.
In addition, institutions can initiate partnerships with other stakeholders, such as private-sector employers, to promote students’ successful transition to the workforce and extend needed emotional supports. For example, companies can help ensure that students have access to technology, can be flexible and creative with employment opportunities, and can provide mental health services suited to the realities of the day. In doing so, they can help maintain gains in workplace diversity and equity.
Even before the pandemic, college students of color faced unique mental health challenges. According to a 2015 national survey by the Steve Fund and The Jed Foundation, students of color are more likely than their white peers to report feeling overwhelmed during their first year of college, and yet they are half as likely to seek help from a mental-health professional. (Lumina Foundation is among the funders of the Steve Fund. It is also among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)
These are important factors in and predictors of how well students integrate, perform and persist on college campuses. Students of color are less likely than their white counterparts to make it to the second year of college and to graduate within six years.
Covid-19 — compounded by the conflagratory social climate — has generated profound risks to the mental health of young people of color. Unaddressed, these risks threaten every dimension of their transition to a healthy and productive adulthood, including their successful completion of college.
The Steve Fund, a national organization dedicated to promoting the mental health of young people of color, has formed a multisector task force of thought leaders and students to develop recommendations for mitigating the mental health risks caused by this pandemic, and to stem potential damage.
Young people of color need and deserve wise investments and help in navigating the quagmire wrought by the pandemic as well as today’s inflammatory racial climate and protests for social justice.
Mental health is the foundation of well-being. This crisis is an opportunity for higher education institutions — and their partners — to respond commensurately by making student well-being an essential focus.
This story about the mental health and well-being of students of color was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Annelle Primm, M.D., is senior medical director of the Steve Fund, a national organization dedicated to promoting the mental health and well-being of students of color.