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Hidden Mental Health Issues: The Unique Challenges Black College Students Face

black student graduateResearchers have concluded that Black college students rely on “grit” to get ahead, which means they view their college experience with determination and a strong sense of mental toughness. This is especially prevalent among Black students who are attending predominantly white colleges and universities.

A new study from Vanderbilt has revealed that this approach to the college experience has given birth to a new mental health crisis among Black students.

“Weathering the cumulative effects of living in a society characterized by white dominance and privilege produces a kind of physical and mental wear-and-tear that contributes to a host of psychological and physical ailments,” says Ebony McGee, an assistant professor of diversity and urban schooling at Peabody College at Vanderbilt.

McGee also says that her research team has documented “alarming occurrences of anxiety, stress, depression and thoughts of suicide, as well as a host of physical ailments like hair loss, diabetes and heart disease.”

McGee also co-authored a paper with David Stovall, associate professor of African American studies and educational policy studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago titled “Reimagining Critical Race Theory in Education: Mental Health, Healing and the Pathway to Liberatory Praxis.” The paper explores race theory and the authors challenge the principle of hard work and perseverance, asserting that mental health issues among Black students are often unnoticed because of the students’ intense academic focus and desire to achieve.

“[We] have witnessed black students work themselves to the point of extreme illness in attempting to escape the constant threat of perceived intellectual inferiority,” she says.

She also shares that teaching African American students to be more focused and overachieving in school than their white counterparts, without fully explaining and preparing students for the social injustices of racism, can take its toll on even the most successful pupils.

The research gathered in the study compares high-achieving Black college students to historical legend John Henry. Henry was an enslaved African who literally worked himself to death, in an attempt to prove his worth.

The study states that “John Henryism is a coping strategy often adopted by high-achieving African Americans, who may unconsciously (and increasingly consciously) sacrafice their personal relationships and health to pursue their goals with a tenacity that can be medically and mentally dangerous.”

“Grit” is technically a term that is neutral in terms of race. However, it is often associated with comparing success through goal achievement and the evidence of certain characteristics, while ignoring the discrimination that often hampers Black students’ success, explains McGee. Resilience, time management and a goal-oriented mindset are essentials for any college student, regardless of race. However, Black students also have the additional responsibility of proving they are intellectually worth while facing both underlying and overt racism.

Stovall and McGee are both mentors and teachers, and have been aware of the firsthand accounts many Black students have experienced as they try to both survive and thrive in a mostly White environment. Stovall asserts that Black students facing this multi-faceted burden have to be “protected against daily discrimination.” There are also research studies indicating that grit is needed for mental fortitude when accomplishing a task. Still, a more holistic approach is needed when gaining a clear understanding of the mental, emotional and psychological harm that Black students face while in college and beyond.

The authors of the study make a case for systemic changes in the university system, so that Black student healing can begin. This healing will have to take a different approach than traditional wellness methods.

“The process of healing from racial battle fatigue and institutional racism requires significant internal commitment and external support,” the study concludes. “Black college students are brilliant, talented, and creative, and they dream as big as other students. Pursuing higher education should not make them sick.”

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