Black Students and Mental Health: An Emerging, Unseen Crisis

In a recent article we wrote, titled “Reimagining Critical Race Theory in Education: Mental Health Healing and the Pathway to Liberatory Praxis,” we argue that African American college students draw on “grit” — perseverance and passion for long-term goals often operationalized through mental toughness — in order to achieve in predominantly white academic institutions. However, that notion fails to recognize an emerging mental health crisis for these students.

The excitement over grit has been primarily targeted at students of color as a cure for their so-called “failure of character,” which can negatively influence their academic outcomes. Many schools and programs across the country have conveniently accepted and implemented practices and policies using the grit construct as the determining factor in the success of these students without appropriately investigating its validity.

A recent meta-analytic review of the literature on grit, representing 66,807 individuals, established that the impact of grit has been grossly exaggerated — a point even acknowledged by University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Furthermore, the study results reveal that there is nothing new about grit and it is nearly identical to conscientiousness, which has been well studied within psychology as a somewhat fixed trait of one’s personality, whereas grit has been marketed as a skill.

This crisis stems from the cumulative effects of living in a society characterized by white dominance and privilege, which produces stress that contributes to a host of psychological and physical ailments for African American students.

It comes as no surprise that these students endure unique obstacles as they pursue higher learning opportunities, given that K–12 schooling is systemically inequitable and racially discriminatory. Researchers have documented the tribulations of black undergraduate and graduate students, particularly those who attend predominantly white institutions, where persistent racialized experiences are often concealed or subtle — but nonetheless emotionally piercing — causing fatigue and trauma. Explicit dialogue is needed to illuminate the realities of black college students’ emotional distress.

Academicians have documented a consistent set of problems faced by black students in higher education. These students experience tokenism, one person representing an entire group of people in a majority setting; pioneerism, being the first member of a minority; marginalization, the overlooking of achievements by underrepresented students of color; and “pet-to-threat” syndrome, when a person who is first welcomed as a minority is turned against when he or she becomes a contender for research money or awards. A lack of mentoring on how to cope with racialized attitudes and incidents exacerbates these issues.

Furthermore, African American students can experience hyper-visibility and invisibility simultaneously. They describe feelings of being under constant surveillance and, paradoxically, feelings of being consciously ignored. One student reported being overlooked as a scholar in academic settings, often discounted or not called on because professors doubted his intellectual ability. Once he began to speak out about injustices at the institution, however, the administration kept him under close watch. Another black college student reported that administrators intercepted her emails.— as one sympathetic administrator confided to her — and used them against her when she became a vocal activist against discrimination on her campus. Understandably, some African American students have begun to challenge the meritocratic notion that their collective academic achievements promote racial progress in any substantive way.

The mental health concerns associated with these circumstances reflect a gaping hole in the analysis of support systems for minority students in higher education. Contrary to popular belief, when mental health is not connected to retention and graduation rates, college administrators miss out on a unique opportunity to address the deleterious effects of racial microaggressions and structural racism. When resources are not dedicated to mental health concerns, the issue becomes relegated to the shadows, continuing to carry stigma.

While some universities are paying more attention to the mental health concerns of students, it continues to be a distant thought for most. For the places that have not considered mental health as a retention and graduation issue, we encourage them to take a holistic approach to address the concerns of their students. In recognizing race and racism, it is often difficult for university faculty and administration to accept their institutions as hostile and violent. While most do not have white extremists lurking on their quads, microaggressions alone have long-term effects that deeply affect the lives of African Americans and other minority students.

Black students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines should not be regarded as the anomaly. Instead, their concerns should be seen as reflective of a larger paradigm: the inability of many traditionally white institutions to address these specific and broad-reaching concerns of students of color.

Colleges and universities must confront the assumption that often resonates with white faculty, staff, and students at predominantly white institutions: the idea that students of color don’t deserve to be there. If this is understood as a commonly shared belief, then the university is pushed to confront the reality before a crisis occurs. In most instances, universities are reactionary to incidents that are attributed to “racial issues.” Using a holistic approach, institutions can create mechanisms and approaches that operate from a unique understanding of the historical and continual presence of racism.

Some reading this will have the tendency to instantaneously reduce racism to the nefarious and unwanted acts of individuals toward members of racial and ethnic groups. To those with this interpretation, we offer a different analysis: Because racism has individual and institutional components, it is critical to consider racialized assumptions of the university while also addressing efforts directly affecting minorities. In suggesting a “both-and” approach, we recommend that colleges and universities engage in proactive strategies that allow students to inform them of their concerns. An approach that ignores the consequences of learning and participating in a racialized educational paradigm does nothing but exacerbate the manifestations of racism we are attempting to address.

Ultimately, an interdisciplinary perspective is needed that helps identify and foster strategies for supporting African American students in the process of healing — perhaps even avoiding — multiple forms of racialized trauma they experience both on and off campus.●

Ebony O. McGee, PhD, is an assistant professor of diversity and urban schooling in the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University. David Stovall, PhD, is a professor of educational policy studies in the College of Education and a professor of African American studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.