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Welcome to The Intersection! I’m Naomi Harris, and this is my Open Campus newsletter that examines race and equity in higher education. If you’re new, make sure to sign up for future editions!

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A monthly newsletter that explores issues facing historically Black colleges and universities and follows the work of our HBCU Student Journalism Network. By Naomi Harris.

Let’s talk about mental health

For eight years, a group of researchers examined the mental health of college students across the country. The study by The Healthy Minds Network found the mental health of college students has gotten worse, especially for students of color.

From 2013 to 2021, researchers collected data from 350,000 students at over 350 colleges. They found a 135-percent increase in depression and a 110-percent increase in anxiety. And the number of students who identified one or more mental health problems doubled.

The study also examined the mental health status of students by race. The groups with the largest increases in depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, the report found, were American Indian and Alaskan Native college students. During the pandemic, significant increases in mental health concerns were seen in a number of groups, including students who are American Indian, Alaskan Native, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Desi American.

As more students seek help, colleges can’t keep up.

I talked to Sarah Lipson, assistant professor at Boston University and principal investigator of the Healthy Minds Network. She offered insight into the struggles of mental health over the past eight years, how identity and race affect access to services, and what colleges can do to help students.

Here’s our conversation. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How does race play a role in the types of mental health challenges and services received?

We certainly see inequalities in terms of prevalence by race, ethnicity, and college population. The largest inequalities that we see, though, are actually in terms of who’s accessing mental health services. We tend to think of an outcome called the mental health treatment gap. To look at that treatment gap over time, by race, ethnicity, shows that the treatment gap has only widened for students of color. They’re less likely than their white counterparts to be accessing health services than they were even eight years ago.

There’s enormous inequalities there. How does race play into the services that students receive? A big question right now is how can we think about a campus mental health system as being more than just a counseling center? There’s a big problem with the supply of mental health providers, particularly the supply of providers of color.

What can colleges do to specifically provide services and support for students of color?

What we hear from students of color is counseling centers don’t have providers that understand their experiences or their identities. That’s certainly a real challenge. But what can campuses actually do to overcome that? That’s where the broader campus approach comes into play — where we’re bringing in student affairs and residential life and faculty from all across campus and trying to leverage the kind of diversity that exists across campus, even if it’s not right there in the counseling center.

There’s very high levels of stigma. In general, levels of mental health stigma have been going down in college populations, which is great news. Students are more open to talking about this. But (stigma) is still quite high in certain groups. For example, among Asian students, particularly Asian international students, in our data have much higher levels of stigma that are a factor in the decision to not seek help. Asian students also have some of the widest mental health treatment gaps as well.

It kind of differs. There’s cultural norms. There’s stigma. There is knowledge. What does the supply side of counseling services look like and how does that affect students? There’s feelings of safety and inclusivity on campus that certainly affect whether students feel comfortable going and seeking services. In our data, there’s an important opportunity to talk about intersectionality, thinking about first-gen, low-income, students of color. It’s hard to pinpoint the role that race plays, per se, but more so we can kind of look at these different identities and intersections of identities and think about the patterns there.

There are things that happen that are outside of the control of higher education, in terms of whether they happen, so like discrimination and microaggressions are happening on campus. There are trainings, systems and cultural changes on campus that should minimize those experiences for students at their institution. But the broader kind of racial trauma that we see in society, at least right now, it’s not something we would turn to higher education and expect that, they would have a solution to that. When there are specific traumatic events, being prepared with that post-intervention, being able to support students, having faculty who really understand the trauma that all students have really gone through over the past several years, but particularly students of color, having faculty be able to acknowledge is really key — bringing that into classroom environments.

There’s a lot of opportunities to be talking about mental health and mental health equity in classrooms and improving students’ knowledge and understanding particularly of how mental health affects academic performance.

How do retention rates and mental health needs connect? What should colleges be thinking about when examining who quit their studies and who needs mental health services?

Mental health is actually one of the strongest predictors of students’ persistence and retention in higher education. The same students who are the least likely to access mental health treatment when they’re struggling are the same students, on average, who have the lowest rates of persistence and retention in higher education. So first gen, low income, and students of color. Really try to make students aware of how prioritizing their mental health is likely to reap the benefits in terms of their academic performance.

Many people are experiencing their first signs and symptoms of a mental health problem. It’s a lot to expect them to think: ‘This is what is going on right now, in my extremely busy life. I’m going to take time out right now to go seek help.’ That’s a lot to ask of someone. But if you can put that into the context of, here is how prioritizing mental health right now can improve your academics, I think that is a big motivator for students.

Recommended Readings

What gets in the way of accessing a degree for Black and Latino students? Jason Gonzales at Chalkbeat has reported on college-going in Colorado and highlighted stories of students who left college.

When students have shared experiences with their teachers, along with a level of cultural competence, the impact is significant. Nick Fouriezos reported on how organizations are working with rural tribal communities to increase diversity and representation amongst teachers.

Students at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University sued Florida’s state university system and the state, alleging underfunding at the HBCU. Liann Herder at Diverse Issues in Higher Education reported on how this case is unusual because of how students are taking the lead.

Thanks for reading!

I’d like to hear from you. Share your stories, tips, and perspectives by sending me an email. Reach out to me at

Open Campus national reporter covering the intersection of race and higher education.