Navigating student mental health challenges and opportunities at HBCUs

Historically, black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are beacons of empowerment and academic excellence within the African American community. Beyond academics, these institutions cultivate a sense of inclusion, cultural pride, and support from a community of people who not only look like you, but sincerely want every student to succeed. Like any institution, HBCUs face unique challenges when it comes to supporting student mental health, but they provide innovative approaches to addressing these issues.

The historical stigma surrounding mental health within the African American community is one of the main challenges. Seeking help for mental health is often seen as a sign of weakness, preventing students from seeking the support they need and leading to unrecognized and untreated mental health diagnoses, potentially affecting daily routine, academic performance. and work of an individual and, in general, well-being. Compared to larger, predominantly white institutions, HBCUs often have limited resources or funding to provide comprehensive mental health services. Budget constraints may limit the number of counseling, professional services, or mental health programs on campus. This lack of resources can make it difficult for students facing other financial and personal responsibilities to access timely, affordable, and culturally effective care. Additionally, the intersectionality of race, gender, and socioeconomic status adds to the mental health experiences of students at HBCUs, causing higher rates of anxietydepression and other challenges.

But do not be fooled. Despite these challenges, HBCUs offer opportunities for innovative approaches to supporting student mental health. Leveraging the strong sense of community and cultural pride fostered at these institutions can provide peer support. By addressing the unique challenges students face, creating safe spaces for open dialogue about mental health, promoting awareness, and fostering acceptance, HBCUs can continue their legacy of breaking down barriers and fostering the growth of young people of color.

HBCUs foster student-led initiatives and collaborations with faculty and administration, further strengthening mental health support within these settings. These student-led initiatives, such as mental health awareness campaigns, support groups, and wellness workshops, empower individuals to become agents of change within their communities and cultivate self-advocacy for well-being.

But HBCUs can go even further by prioritizing hiring diverse mental health professionals who understand the unique cultural experiences of African American students. Through the lens of a student, seeing people who look like them (their backgrounds and identities) and who are passionate about not only their well-being but also their aspirations builds confidence, breaks down stigma, and increases the desire to access mental health services. By addressing cultural stigmas, expanding access to resources, and fostering a culture of support and empowerment, HBCUs will continue to uphold their legacy as beacons of hope and opportunity for generations to come. HBCUs serve as catalysts for positive change within the African American community, while embracing their heritage and creating pathways to healing, resilience, and liberation in the pursuit of mental wellness. As these institutions continue to evolve and adapt to the ever-changing needs of their student populations, prioritizing mental health must remain a focus.

Chayil Bullock-Mariscal (she/her) is a 2023-2024 member of Mental Health America Young Leaders Council.

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