Students Of Color Aren't Getting The Mental Health Help They Need In College

"Black folks have been talking about this pain and suffering for a long time now, and the typical response is 'It's all in your head,'" one researcher said.

New research shows that students of color are far less likely to ask for help when they're stressed or facing other mental health concerns -- and two nonprofits want to know why and how to fix it.

The Jed Foundation, which works with colleges on suicide prevention, and the Steve Fund, which promotes emotional well-being for young people of color, are launching a study to find out what's preventing minority students from using mental health services on campuses, the groups announced Wednesday.

The two organizations also released survey results from a Harris Poll taken last year of 1,502 students ages 17 to 20, showing that black and Hispanic students were more likely to feel overwhelmed in college but also more likely to keep their concerns to themselves compared to white classmates. 

White students were more likely than their black and Hispanic classmates to feel both academically and emotionally prepared for college, the poll showed. White students were also twice as likely to be treated for various mental health issues. 

"This speaks to the fact that black folks have been talking about this pain and suffering for a long time now, and the typical response is 'It's all in your head,' or 'You need to suck it up,'" said Ebony McGee, a researcher at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College who has studied black students' mental health concerns. "I think now we're saying, 'No, there are some other options -- what can the institutions do?'"

In recent protests against racism on college campuses, students have demanded better mental health treatment for students of color. At the same time, students of all backgrounds are increasingly seeking on-campus mental health treatment at a rate that far outpaces the increase in enrollment, a recent report from Pennsylvania State University shows. 

More students of color are attending college these days than in previous decades, but they are statistically more likely to be first-generation college students or from lower-income backgrounds. They may be encountering their first chance to receive counseling services when they arrive at college, which could be one reason they aren't as likely to take advantage of such resources. 

"That's one aspect of it," said Victor Schwartz, medical director of the Jed Foundation. "Chances are, if you've come from a disadvantaged background, you haven't had access to mental health care, so you've either had no experience with the mental health system or bad experiences."

The graphic above shows how Caucasian, African-American and Hispanic students rated their emotions during their first te
The graphic above shows how Caucasian, African-American and Hispanic students rated their emotions during their first term in college.

The Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State believes that despite a more diverse college population with more lower-income students, students of color likely only account for a small percentage of the growing number of students seeking counseling services overall. 

"It's an important contributing factor, but I don't think it explains this sudden growth," said Ben Locke, executive director of CCMH. The report by CCMH found that demand for counseling services on college campuses has increased 38 percent over five years. 

Taken together, the Penn State report and the new survey from Jed Foundation and the Steve Fund suggest that the number of students who need mental health treatment has increased substantially, but a significant number of minority students are still being left out.

Furthermore, McGee said her research shows that when black students use counseling centers, it's not always productive. Many white counselors are often unprepared to deal with stress and anxiety stemming from issues related to a student's race or ethnic background. 

"Coming to a white male counselor about a white male professor isn't the most affirming process," McGee said. "The field itself needs a better understanding of how racism itself challenges the mental health of black students in general."

Yet McGee said that when there's a higher the percentage of black and Latino therapists at a university counseling center, more black and Latino students tend to use the services. 

"The students I talked to who do have successful experiences often do talk to a counselor that looks like them," she said. 

The Jed Foundation and the Steve Fund plan to identify programs on college campuses in the coming months that show promise or are already helping minority students with mental health issues. 


Tyler Kingkade is a national reporter covering higher education, and is based in New York. You can contact him at, or find him on Twitter: @tylerkingkade.