Episode 137: College Support Services: More Important Than You Think

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This is an unusual episode in our series Researching College Options and for USACollegeChat as well. It looks at a critical issue today–one that can have terribly serious consequences for students and their families. The issue was raised in an insightful late August article by Alina Tugend in The Hechinger Report (the article also appeared in U.S. News & World Report). The issue is mental health support services on college campuses and the students–especially nonwhite students–who evidently all too often do not use them when they need to. This is going to be a relatively short episode for us, but I think you will see that it packs a big punch.

1. The Problem

Here are some facts you might not know, as reported in the article:

Nonwhite [college] 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.

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. (quoted from the article)

That’s a lot of college students who could use some support when feeling overwhelmed–not only the half or more of black and Hispanic students, according to these studies, but also the 40 percent of white students. I have to say that I had no idea about the size of this problem.

Let’s look a bit further into the particular stresses faced by black and Hispanic students, according to experts quoted in the article:

. . . “[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. (quoted from the article)

And this is not an issue only for black and Hispanic students. Asian college students face their own stresses, according to the article:

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.” (quoted from the article)

Wow. Stress on college students clearly knows no racial or ethnic boundaries, and students of all backgrounds should know what to do when that stress becomes just too much for them to handle. But here is what happens too often, according to the article:

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 [Steve] 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.” (quoted from the article)

I think there is no better way to demonstrate the enormous price that students and their families pay when support isn’t found in time than to read to you most of a remarkable letter from Steve’s family (that is, his parents and two brothers), which appears on the website of The Steve Fund:

In 2014, we began a journey, one which no family should ever have to take. It began with the loss of Steve, our beloved son, family member and friend. After graduating from Harvard College and completing a Masters degree at City University, mental illness took Steve from us. We have established the Steve Fund with the aim of preventing other families having to take a journey like ours.

Our nation is not meeting the mental health needs of young people of color. While research shows that the differences in ethnic backgrounds of students necessitate culturally sensitive approaches to supporting their mental health, their needs are still significantly understudied, and insufficiently understood. With minorities forming the majority of Americans by 2044, and the majority of children by 2020, the future success of our nation will depend on the mental health and emotional well-being of these young people.

It is our firm belief that colleges and universities should play a vital role in meeting these needs by providing the best support possible for an increasingly diverse student population. Since we established the Fund, we have focused on developing knowledge and thought leadership, launched effective programs, such as the buildout of a text-based crisis hotline with our partner Crisis Text Line, and have built partnerships with renowned organizations in the field to leverage resources and to direct more effort towards our cause.

The Steve Fund is mobilized to learn about, implement with excellence, and measure the kind of best practices that will protect the mental health and emotional well-being of our nation’s college age students of color. (quoted from the website)

Kudos, of course, to Steve’s family and the work that the Fund is doing.

The article goes on to do a good job of explaining the difficulties that students of color have when faced with college support personnel who are white. According to a survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, only 10 percent of college psychologists and therapists are black, only 8 percent are Asian, and only 7 percent are Hispanic. While some colleges are working to change staff make-up, most probably have a long way to go in order to serve the mental health needs of students of color on their campuses. And perhaps that is something to keep in mind, parents of students of color, when you are looking at colleges for your kids.

2. Get the Information

As we said in our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students, information about support services on a college campus is one thing prospective applicants and their parents might want to consider. And now that we understand the scope of the mental health problem, I am glad that we included a question about support services on the College Profile Worksheet. We give the Worksheet to students to complete for colleges they are interested in applying to (it is found at the end of our book). Here is some of what we wrote in the new book:

While support services–like academic advising, personal counseling, and employment assistance–can be useful to any undergraduate student, these support services are often particularly important to groups of students who might find it more difficult to adjust to college life, either socially or academically, especially when they find themselves in the minority of students on a college campus.

If you identify with students of color, first-generation-to-college students, LGBTQ students, students with learning disabilities, or another group, you should take a look at whether each college on your long list of college options has support services targeted for you. For example, Georgia State University has an impressive Office of Black Student Achievement, which provides a wide variety of academic, support, leadership, and outreach activities, programs, and services. That says something about its commitment to serving its black student population.

When you are looking for support services like that on a college’s website, see whether you can find any evidence that the services provided are actually successful. Why? Because successful support services can make all the difference between dropping out and graduating.

And now that I have read The Hechinger Report article, I would add, “Because successful support services can make all the difference between life and death–literally.” And remember, you might want to look at the racial and ethnic make-up of the counseling staff that will be available to your kid, if it turns out he or she needs that help. Because, really, what could be more important than that.

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