She arrived to class feeling uneasy and out of place. Usually confident in her abilities, Abiba, a sophomore at a local university began to experience heart palpitations, headaches and difficulty getting out of bed in the morning. Dragging herself to class this particular day was especially difficult since she failed an exam last week. This was one of many failed exams and Abiba could not understand what was happening. Over time, she began to think about hanging herself in her dorm room but couldn’t fathom having her family back home in The Gambia learn that she had taken her life. Unable to share this with anyone, she began cutting her legs with a razor to calm herself and distract from these thoughts. Eventually she sought counseling after being placed on academic probation.
The mental health of college students of African descent* is at stake. Many students arrive on campus with high hopes, dreams and great expectations of creating bright futures. However, unanticipated and underestimated is the impact of stress, academic and environmental pressures that are inherent in pursuing higher education. Often students are dealing with normal stress but increasingly students are dealing with more serious concerns. The mental health of college students has been a growing concern for several decades, with documented increase in severity of those concerns.
The stress of the academic pursuit may most often exacerbate existing mental health concerns or contribute to their onset. Given this fact, the mental health of this population of students is even more concerning for many reasons. One main reason is that research shows that populations of African descent have been historically less likely to seek mental health treatment. One can speculate whether the presence of mental health concerns are readily recognized or if grit and mental toughness overshadows the detection of more serious concerns. Nevertheless, in my work as a psychotherapist at a college counseling center, many students are unaware of how to handle mental health conditions when and if they arise and are less likely to ask for help from parents or loved ones. This is in part due to ongoing stigma around mental illness, including a fear that loved ones will be disappointed. Even worse, students feel they might be viewed as weak and that having a mental condition is a testament to their character. This is especially true in these communities. As an added challenge, academic performance seems to be prioritized over all else, leaving no time, energy or desire to focus on health and wellness. Sometimes this even means sacrificing eating and sleeping as well.
As an African American therapist, most of the students I see regularly are of African descent. This includes African populations. Of the students I treat, none are exempt from the experience of significant mental health challenges. While each individual’s concerns are unique and involve a set of contributing factors specific to that person, common among many, is the drive to excel in their studies no matter the cost which often comes at the expense of wellbeing. One student from Kenya entered treatment due to depression and increase in suicidal thoughts. The protective factors that kept the student from acting on these thoughts primarily depended on his academic performance and a planned career in physics. When he began to struggle in his coursework, suicidal thoughts increased as he saw no need to continue living if his academic future and career were at stake. This is one of many examples demonstrating the hidden lives of our college students. Detrimentally, many problems go unreported and undetected until it is too late. In my work, I treat students with a variety of serious concerns, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, self-mutilation, eating disorders and substance abuse. Unfortunately, academic pursuit is impacted if help is not accessible, and help is not accessible if student’s feel they cannot share their struggles. I urge parents, friends and loved ones to become familiar with warning signs that may indicate your student is struggling and seek help. Most colleges and university settings have onsite counseling services available free to students and can help discuss options and guide your student to get the help they need.
LaTasha L. Smith, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Below are some helpful resources:
*I use African descent to describe and refer to all populations originating from the African diaspora including but not limited to African American, Caribbean, African-Latino/a and African populations.
**All information and names have been disguised to protect identity.