‘A tipping point’: Mental health of marginalized students calls for new solutions

Lianne Frick/Senior Staff

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For ASUC Senator Hani Hussein, her first year at UC Berkeley marked a pivotal point in her life.

“I walked into the walk-in crisis management four to five times that year alone,” Hussein said.

As she struggled to find her place in packed lecture halls, figure out a feasible course load and manage new friendships, Hussein also worried about having enough money to pay rent and feed herself. Hussein said on top of being a junior transfer and a first-generation college student, her identity as Black Muslim woman complicated her search for an adequate support system.

“When I was talking to my peers I was told to ‘suck it up’ because … I should just be grateful that I’m here,” Hussein said.

Approximately 51 percent of college students in the United States suffer from anxiety and 41 percent have depression, according to the 2016 Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors annual survey.

Although 72 percent of students responded positively when asked if counseling services helped with their academic performance, the national average of students who use counseling center services is 12 percent. Of that percentage, 36 percent of students were people of color and 14 percent identified as LGBTQ+.

According to Tang Center spokesperson Kim LaPean, approximately 16 percent of students on campus use counseling and psychological services — 4 percent higher than the national average. Lapean added that out of this group 68 percent were students of color, but more work is needed to reach those in need from marginalized communities on campus.

“Students from low-income families often worry about having a roof over our head and food on the table,” Hussein said. “Mental health has become secondary even though it should be a focal point in everything that we do.”


At the intersection

ASUC Senator Vicente Román, who identifies as Latinx, said mental health is not commonly discussed in his community, citing how some of his own peers have told him to “just get over it” when he expressed problems related to his mental health.

Hussein added that there is a pervasive narrative amongst students which asserts those who admit to their problems and seek out help do not deserve to be at UC Berkeley. She added that this stigma is reinforced by a campus culture that routinely jokes about suicide, as seen in popular unaffiliated Facebook meme pages such as Overheard at UC Berkeley.

In her five years as a campus graduate student instructor for ethnic studies, Sonia Suárez said in an email that she witnessed the many ways in which students of color navigated the academic system while handling mental health crises. According to Suárez, as they deal with academic and outside pressures that arose from their identities, students’ emotional instability eventually reach “a tipping point.”

“For example, I had students who lost friends in the Pulse shooting last summer, or even more recently students who were dealing with the immigration issues surrounding DACA,” Suárez said in an email. “This stuff affects their mental health and they also bring it to the classroom with them.”


Reforming remedies

Gloria Saito, Tang Center interim director of counseling and psychological services, said stigma around mental health is common among most students and is carried over from high school or home. Saito added that students of color tend to seek resources after their problems become severe and unmanageable.

To combat this, Saito said the Tang Center’s 11 satellite on campus offices and its “Let’s Talk” program both offer confidential drop-in counseling in a casual setting to ease any apprehensions students may have. Saito said the Tang Center hopes to normalize conversations surrounding stress and anxiety.

“It takes a lot of courage to seek counseling and to actually go to somebody and say ‘I’m struggling help me figure this out,’” Saito said. “All of our jobs are to go out and give that message.”

Román advocated for students to be more open to speaking about issues unique to them because emotional well-being is unique to one’s positionality. While the administration does provide mental health resources, Román said he believes the administration tends to generalize students and thus, neglects the needs of those most vulnerable.

Román said that the campus overall must be more proactive in improving student wellness, starting with more open dialogue between the administration and multicultural communities on campus. The “Big C” Referendum — a student-led referendum that increased the staffing and services offered by the Centers for Educational Justice & Community Engagement — was an example of marginalized students lobbying for funding to make up for what the administration lacked — “for their own survival,” Román said.

Hussein added that addressing the mental health of marginalized students requires tackling other inadequacies on campus.

“If this is the highest that the country has to offer as a public university then we have a long ways to go (in terms of support),” Hussein said. “It doesn’t matter how great our research is and our courses are if … students are going hungry and hanging on debt, we need to do more.”

Francesca Munsayac covers student life. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @fcfm_dc.