The Steve Fund Promotes Mental Health of Students of Color Via Education, Dialogue

African American and Hispanic students are not only more likely than their white peers to feel overwhelmed in college, but are also less inclined to express their concerns or seek treatment for mental health issues they may be experiencing, according to a survey conducted by The Jed Foundation and The Steve Fund.

Established in 2014 to address these issues, The Steve Fund (TSF) is a national nonprofit organization that promotes the mental health and emotional well-being of students of color on college campuses. It was founded by friends and family of Stephen “Steve” Rose, a graduate of Harvard College and City University who passed away after a struggle with mental illness. Believing that the U.S. should be doing more to meet the mental health and emotional needs of young people of color, they launched TSF to address many of the risks and barriers to treatment faced by these individuals.

“The family felt compelled because, through their own experience, they weren’t finding satisfactory resources for their son, so they felt the need to fill that void,” says Terri Wright, PhD, executive director of TSF.

Wright says that while students of color aren’t necessarily experiencing higher rates of mental illness or emotional distress than others, their reactions to situations on campus are often informed by their racial or ethnic background. “The challenge is uncovering what the unique needs of this particular population are, not because they experience mental illness more or are more at risk to become mentally ill, but because their life experiences are distinctive and unique,” she says.

TSF works with colleges and universities, other nonprofits, researchers, practitioners, and groups serving diverse populations to share relevant research, promote dialogue, and create programs to increase support for students of color.

Understanding how vulnerable these individuals can be during the transition from high school to college and from college to careers — not to mention, while they are enrolled — TSF created programming to assist them at these key times. Through two on-campus workshops, students learn how to deal with microaggressions, imposter syndrome, feelings of isolation, discrimination, anxiety, and stress management, says Anuja Khemka, strategy adviser for TSF.

“Our mental health experts provide them ways to cope with the issues they face on campus. They direct them to resources, teach them the value of peer networks, and [engage them in] discussions to destigmatize mental health,” Khemka says.

To help students persist through college, TSF mental health experts discuss stereotypes; aspects of identity, including race, ethnicity, social class, and religion; and how these affect their experience as a person of color and the challenges they face on campus. For those preparing to enter the workforce, TSF helps them determine their next steps and manage the stress and anxiety that accompany this major life change.

In addition, TSF offers consulting services for institutions to help them identify gaps in their current mental health services and to find effective ways to build capacity. Colleges and universities — and student groups — can also request customized workshops. The organization offers programming and services for parents as well. Through workshops and webinars, TSF “provides parents with tips on how they can help their children and how to spot mental health conditions — depression, anxiety, anything that seems a little bit off with their child,” Khemka explains.

Furthermore, through TSF’s 24/7 crisis text line, students of color who are feeling emotionally distressed can communicate with crisis counselors who are trained to assist with their specific needs. “Having this type of service,” Khemka says, “is very helpful so students don’t feel as alone or isolated.”

Beyond these efforts, TSF has been developing a set of 10 recommendations for colleges and universities to better support the mental health and well-being of students of color. The recommendations, which are based on research, will be released later this summer, says Wright. “We will then work with universities to put them into place,” she says, “because [this should be] a transformation, not simply a transaction.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. To learn more, visit stevefund.org.