Anyone paying attention to higher education in recent years is well aware of two pressing issues on regular repeat: changing perceptions of student mental health needs, and the need to better attend to diversity and inclusion. But how might those two issues intersect? How might an equity lens inform the way academics, and academic institutions, think about student mental health?
Several organizations working collaboratively on those issues (including the JED Foundation and the Steve Fund) recently produced an “Equity in Mental Health Framework” that highlights needs and offers ten specific “recommendations for colleges and universities to support the emotional well-being and mental health of students of color.” The full report is available on-line, and while it is a bit more oriented towards administrative policy than classroom practice it is worth a browse for the curious. For this teaching and learning blog, however, here are a few quick takeaways that might inform faculty and academic staff at UP.
First, the report notes that there are good empirical reasons (beyond the obvious ethical reasons) to pay attention to equity in mental health. In two national studies involving thousands of racially diverse college students Harris Poll research found, among other things, that:
- “First-year college students of color are significantly less likely than white students to rate their overall college experience as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ (69% to 80%)”
- “Students of color are significantly less likely than white students to rate their campus climate as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ (61% to 79%)”
- “Students of color are significantly less likely to describe their campus as inclusive (28% to 45%)”
These types of statistics do not by themselves suggest that students of color are necessarily more or less likely to confront mental health issues – in fact, mental health concerns are a relatively equal opportunity reality (with some interesting and important demographic differences). But they do suggest that college and university environments may have a different social and emotional climate for students from diverse backgrounds.
So what can be done to promote a social and emotional climate that is supportive and inclusive for all students? Many of the recommendations in the ‘Equity in Mental Health Framework’ are structural (including, for example, promoting “the mental health and well-being of students of color as a campus-wide priority” and to “actively recruit, train and retain a diverse and culturally competent faculty and professional staff”). There are also several that might be worth thinking about for our work with students in and around the classroom.
Recommendation #4, for example, involves creating “opportunities to engage around national and international issues/events” including cultural movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. This seems like a natural fit for many educational contexts – both in and out of classrooms. It is not always easy to create constructive spaces that are genuinely educational to discuss current events that are complex and evolving, but it is worth remembering that doing so thoughtfully can matter to students who otherwise feel disconnected and marginalized.
Recommendation #7, as a second example, involves offering “a range of supportive programs and services in varied formats” that might include discussion groups and workshops allowing students from diverse backgrounds to connect and engage with developing identity issues. This recommendation makes me think of the many positive experiences I know UP students have had with groups such as the Hawai’i Club, the Black Student Union, the Feminist Discussion Group, Active Minds, and many others that are student-driven but thrive with faculty and staff support.
Working toward “equity in mental health” at colleges and universities is a big project that goes well beyond just what academics do with teaching and learning. But we faculty and academic staff can do our part by recognizing the ways teaching and learning can create further intersections for both equity and mental health.