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Mental health on campus: not a level playing field

Although the separate issues of mental health and equity are often at the forefront of dialogue at Duke, several groups suggest that the two are more intertwined than some might think.

On both the national and campus levels, minority students often grapple with different mental health challenges than those faced by their non-minority peers. The causes vary widely, from historic barriers within the mental health system to underlying stigmas. Student organizations and campus leaders have isolated a number of potential causes and solutions, and are working to both increase accessibility of mental health resources as well as increase campus-wide inclusion of minority students.

A growing trend

In 2002, President George W. Bush chartered the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, which released a report the following year that extensively documented the ways in which the American mental health system “has not kept pace with the diverse needs of racial and ethnic minorities, often underserving and inappropriately serving them.”

More than a decade later, student organization leaders at Duke have noted a recent upward trend in minority students accessing mental health resources on campus. This upward trend is often coupled with a long-standing predisposition of mental health issues in these communities.

J’nai Adams, program coordinator at the Center for Multicultural Affairs, noted a recent rise in the number of students of color acknowledging mental health struggles and working to get help through Counseling and Psychological Services and other avenues.

“There’s been an uptick in student of color going to CAPS and students of color going on leave, and I don’t think it’s anything new, but I do feel like it’s a domino effect,” Adams said, noting that as more minority students are open about difficulties with mental health, others seem to be more likely to seek out help themselves.

Blue Devils United President Daniel Kort, a senior, said he has seen a similar trend in the LGBTQ community—which has historically had a higher rate of mental illness than the general population, according to the American Psychological Association.

“I’ve really come to learn that the LGBTQ community has very distinct mental health concerns as opposed to our heterosexual peers,” Kort said. “[LGBTQ individuals are] increasingly susceptible to anxiety, depression, disordered eating and substance abuse.”

Campus environment as a possible cause

Adams theorized that an increase in students of color talking about mental health issues could be tied to issues in the overall campus environment.

“A colleague told me it’s not a mental health issue, it’s a campus climate issue, and the campus climate not being so inclusive can create opportunities for students—where maybe their mental health was fine, but the stress of it all can impact students and their wellness,” Adams said. “They’re trying to deal with not feeling welcomed, or the stress of having to support their family when they come back, or maybe they’re first generation and everyone’s depending on them to be a success story.”

Gary Glass, CAPS associate director for outreach and developmental programming, sees additional challenges faced by minority students at a relatively small campus like Duke.

“What’s different about the college experience is that everything in college, especially on a campus like Duke, which is a bit insulated, can be amplified,” Glass said. “Vulnerability gets amplified when you feel like everybody knows you.”

Alongside challenges in campus environment, Glass noted historic struggles for minority students within the mental health field. Until recently, students of minority identities were typically over-diagnosed with mental disorders without consideration of their identities, Glass said.

“The most vivid example is that homosexuality used to be a mental health diagnosis,” Glass said. “As a profession, we have a lot of work to do to educate the community that we’ve learned a lot in our history as well, and that’s incumbent upon us to address mental health issues by naming that sometimes the health problem isn’t with the individual, it’s with the environment they’re having to adjust to.”

Adams said that a growing destigmatization of getting help and taking time off for mental illness may also play a role in the increase in minority students reaching out to mental health professionals.

“Students are more comfortable now, which is why it seems like it’s this huge domino effect of everyone going to CAPS and talking about how they’re not well,” Adams added.

Student efforts and possible solutions

Several student groups have acknowledged issues of student equity and mental health, and have been working to produce products and programming to foster a more positive campus environment.

DSG Vice President for Equity and Outreach Keizra Mecklai, a junior, approached CAPS with the goal of destigmatizing mental illness on campus and making students more aware of the mental health resources available to them. Inspiration stemmed from her involvement in last year’s What I Be photo campaign—which challenged students to share their insecurities—where she noticed a prevalence of mental health and illness issues.

“The What I Be project made me think that mental health and illness, like other stigmatizing issues, was an issue worth addressing,” Mecklai said.

Though Mecklai’s initial plans centered on producing mental health information sheets to distribute to students, she soon broadened her scope. Drawing from the success of events like Me Too Monologues and Greek Ally Week, Mecklai hopes to create events to foster a greater sense of inclusivity within the student body.

“You can’t hate someone whose story you know—in an ideal world, students would better understand people that they see on campus,” Mecklai said. “The reason why these projects and campaigns with individualized stories work is that when you’re sitting and listening to somebody who’s in your chapter about how they feel at a mixer…you see people who you think are so similar to you but who have something to teach you, and you become invested.”

The DSG equity and outreach committee has also discussed plans for panel discussions with peers and professionals who are living with mental illness, as well as a new mobile application, called Concierge, which connect students to available resources based on their issue at hand.

Although regular events for discussing issues of identity and mental well-being are available through several campus organizations—including programming through the Women’s Center, DuWell and the CMA—Glass and Adams each said they felt the issue of marginalization was a larger social one that could only be helped so much with campus events.

“There’s not something we can do and say, ‘Now we’ve addressed this’, because identity is a development process—it’s not an actual situation or event that happens,” Glass said. “For every positive, affirming message that we deliver as departments and services or as student organizations, we know that there also continue to be messages of invalidation, and of offense and aggression, and as long as those are both happening, we need to keep the dialogue going and we have to continue reminding the community of the values we aspire to.”