When Karla Mendoza moved from her predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood in San Diego to go to Harvard University four years ago, she felt like a minority for the first time
“I felt lonely. I felt distant. Both my roommates were white, upper-middle class,” Mendoza says. “We got along great, but when class or race issues arose, a wall came up. I felt like I couldn’t express what I felt, and they felt like I was attacking them.”
Even though she was a student liaison for mental health – she informed freshmen about the counseling available – Mendoza said she didn’t recognize her own signs of depression and anxiety.
“I would go three, four days without showering because I couldn’t stand to be alone with myself,” she said. But she didn’t seek help.
Mendoza, 22, who ended up taking a year off before returning to Harvard this fall, illustrates a paradox: Surveys show that nonwhite students are often more stressed than their white classmates, but experts say they’re less likely to seek psychological help.
This further complicates efforts to increase the proportion of black and Hispanic students who succeed in earning college and university degrees, and who graduate at rates lower than whites.
Seeking psychological help is “culturally unacceptable in the African-American and Latino communities,” says Terri Wright, executive director of the Steve Fund, a nonprofit established by the family of a black graduate student named Stephen Rose who committed suicide. The organization advocates for mental and emotional well-being for black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian college students. Within these groups, “the words ‘therapist’ or counselor’ are loaded,” Wright says. “If you have problems, you don’t go outside your family, or maybe you talk to your faith leader.”
As much as nonwhite students resist taking advantage of mental health services, there’s evidence they’re more in need of them. More than half of black college students report feeling overwhelmed most or all of the time, compared with 40 percent of whites, a survey conducted by the Harris Poll, the JED Foundation and other groups found. About half of black and Hispanic students, compared with 41 percent of whites, say it seems everyone has college figured out but them.
That’s because black and Hispanic students often carry a heavy load of stress. “[I]n addition to the stressors most students face at college – being away from home, time management – there are race-related stressors or minority-status stressors,” says Kevin Cokley, a professor of educational psychology and African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas—Austin.
These stressors include assumptions by some white students and faculty that a minority student wouldn’t be in the classroom but for affirmative action, says David Rivera, an associate professor of counselor education at Queens College of the City University of New York. That perception can make itself felt in seemingly innocuous comments such as, “‘I’m surprised you did well on that paper,'” Rivera says. “If you confront it, you’re dismissed, but if you ignore it, you’re left holding on to that experience,” he adds.
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