Anthony Hines, a senior at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, suffered from anxiety and depression during his first year of college, in 2020. He was stressed about the cost of his tuition, and it was his first time living away from home. 

When Hines learned that the counseling services available would be at no cost, he took action — but within a matter of weeks, he stopped attending sessions with all three of his assigned therapists because he felt like neither of them could help him. 

“By the time I was matched with someone I liked, she told me that we only had about three sessions together to work this out because she had other students on the waitlist,” Hines said. He hasn’t sought counseling services on campus since.

Based on the 2021 annual report from the Penn State Center for Collegiate Mental Health, college counselors often oversee more than 100 students, with some managing as many as 300. This high caseload typically results in less individualized care for each student dealing with mental health issues.

The demand for mental health assistance is pressing. Throughout the 2020-2021 academic year, a majority of college students nationwide met the criteria for at least one mental health diagnosis — a nearly 50% increase from 2013. 

This trend was highlighted in a recent Healthy Minds Study, which surveyed over 90,000 students across 133 U.S. campuses.

Hines is among many who have trouble accessing campus mental health resources at historically Black colleges and universities around the United States. Their issues boil down to a sustained increase in demand without the staff needed to accommodate each student, and the perception employees have of their abilities. 

During her freshman year at North Carolina A&T, Jasmine Moore met the requirements to start receiving counseling but found herself confused after a survey.

“I asked someone when I would be able to receive a counselor and they told me that they are behind with a lot of people, and to ‘be patient’ with them,” said Moore, now a junior.  “The problem was that at that time I was experiencing seasonal depression at my highest level, and I didn’t want to be pushy … so I let two more weeks go by.” 

Moore soon learned she would have to complete the entire process again due to counselors leaving the university. Instead, she faced her depression alone.

The historical stigma surrounding mental health within the African-American community is one of the leading challenges that students at HBCUs face.

Courtesy of Alan Green

Alan Green received his doctorate in counseling psychology from Howard University and now is an education professor at the University of Southern California. Getting many Black Americans to access mental health resources is complicated, he said.

“Black people would rather go to the doctor or the dentist before they ever attempt to see a therapist because they deny the fact they need help,” Green said. 

He recommends that HBCUs outsource to partnering universities and seek diverse ways to place a high value on mental health. 

“Now that I teach at a (predominantly white institution), I can see the cultural differences clearer in this lens, and USC prioritizes mental health creatively,” Green said. “You can normalize the conversation through music, biology, anthropology, and guest speakers.” 

In April of last year. In 2023, a sit-in occurred on the Bennett College campus, with students expressing dissatisfaction over the insufficient availability of in-person mental health resources. At that time, Bennett College had not yet appointed a director of counseling services. 

Senior Ja’Nylah Johnson, then-Miss Bennett College, participated in the protest alongside numerous others. She and her peers didn’t go to class until the position was filled.

“We can’t function as students if we’re not prioritizing our own well-being first. It’s not just me advocating for mental health repeatedly to the president.It’s the entire student body supporting this cause, each with their own stories and reasons why counseling services are vital,” Johnson told WFYM News.

In response, Bennett College President Suzanne Walsh assured students the college was actively working to secure an in-person counselor for students. She also acknowledged the necessity for the college to better communicate relevant information.

As of 2024, the request to see a counselor form at Bennett College is no longer accepting responses. 

Riana Elyse Anderson is a licensed clinical psychologist and a professor at the University of Michigan.

Riana Elyse Anderson

She highlighted the unique challenges students face, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic, which has disrupted some of the opportunities students would have used to socialize. In her estimation, this underscores the need for accessible and comprehensive mental health services on HBCU campuses.

“I imagine when you get to an HBCU, all of these things that you envisioned on what it’s going to be like, what life is like, you’re still going into it, really not even on the hook for a year or two after the pandemic, where so much fundamental import was lost,” Anderson said. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when people are socially connected they are more likely to make healthy choices and have better mental and physical health outcomes. They are also better able to cope with stress, anxiety, and depression. Students may be expecting that their campus counseling services can do more than the staff there can, Anderson said.

“Students are now going to the space hoping that it will snap them out of all of these challenges, when that may not be the case,” Anderson said.

José Villa, a junior mechanical engineering student atNorth Carolina A&T, came to the university to connect to other students with similar interests. He’s in Neomob, a skate organization on campus, and said that since being at the university, his mental health has only worsened.

“I started taking antidepressants in the fall semester to cope with my depression, because I feel the weight of my teachers not caring, and the lack of opportunities we get to socialize now,” he said. 

Villa says that he remembers when North Carolina A&T had more wellness days in place post-pandemic. 

The 2023 academic school year consisted of three wellness days per semester, totaling six days in a school year, compared to the 2024 academic school year, which only has one in the spring semester. 

“I feel like maintaining our mental health has become less of a priority now that the number of mental health/wellness days has decreased in this academic year, and the workload has only increased,” Villa said. 

Charnequa “Charli” Kennedy, the director of counseling services at North Carolina Central University, said one major challenge for students is that most counselors and therapists “aren’t licensed to help in a specific way.” 

Courtesy of Charnequa Kennedy

As college counseling centers work to support students through these challenging times, non-clinical staff have faced a crisis of their own: feeling unequipped. 

“A barrier is certainly a change in mindset because often the thought is, I can’t respond to someone because I’m not trained as a clinician,” Kennedy said. 

She recognizes that there are many different ways people can be helpful and supportive in other ways, including referrals.

“We provide opportunities for our students to get the resources they need, even if we can’t diagnose or access a particular situation by opening them up to the community and hosting mental health fairs and wellness days,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy says that North Carolina Central has a “reasonable response time that covers roughly 85% of student needs.”

She says that although the counseling center is relatively well-staffed, they have “at least one person” available to see students who may present at a given time during the day.

For the issues her department cannot handle, they routinely connect with outside resources in Durham.

“We do partner with community providers who can be an extension of the counseling center, recognizing that higher-level care is generally outside the scope of a counseling center model,” she said. 

Kennedy stresses that a solution means not leaving room to create an opportunity to treat a non-urgent concern as a crisis because then that “sets a pattern of immediacy.” 

She says that students may think every situation is urgent if the staff aren’t careful to clarify that it is not or that there are other resources that they can direct them to. 

“There’s also a consideration that some needs are subclinical, meaning it doesn’t require someone to be connected to us to resolve.” There is an approach that folks can take that responds to a student’s need and may help resolve or help them identify what a resolution is,” Kennedy said. 

Dasia Williams is a fellow with the HBCU Student Journalism Network, a project of Open Campus.

Dasia a senior at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University studying multimedia journalism.