As the end of the semester approaches, students campuswide are burying themselves in books and cramming for exams. And the barrage of tests, papers and assignments is accompanied by the stress and depression of students trying to achieve academic excellence.
But for students of color, final exams are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sources of stress on campus.
Minority students face a unique set of challenges that affect their mental health according to Hannah Nguyen, director of Academic Culture Assembly.
“While stress from exams and assignments does take a toll on all students’ mental health, some students have to deal with feeling unsafe to speak up in class or feeling underrepresented by the authors on their syllabus,” said Nguyen, who spearheaded the effort to create USC’s Mental Health Awareness Month in October.
These microaggressions, brief everyday remarks that attack one’s racial identity, can manifest into trauma, explained assistant professor Shanea Thomas, and, as a result, have profound implications for mental health.
“You feel like you’re in a constant state of fight or flight all the time, and your body is not meant to live in a constant state of fear,” Thomas said. “That really wears on mental health, so that’s why in communities of color you have such high rates of hypertension and blood pressure and depression.”
But while students of color have a uniquely heightened experience with mental health, these issues are often made invisible. In the Asian Pacific American community, Nguyen said, that’s due to a perception that Asian Americans are the “model minority.”
“We are expected to be high-performing and, on top of everything, putting up the facade that we are highly successful and alpha people,” Nguyen said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re Asian American, you’re supposed to be able to do all this.’ It erases the validity of a person’s mental health.”
For Latino students, said Mirian Fuentes, a junior majoring in broadcast and digital journalism, mental health is also often not spoken about. Rather, Latino students today are told to “toughen up,” which can deter them from seeking professional help.
“Seeing counselors is a little ridiculous for some families because it’s like, ‘Why do you need to talk to another person?’” Fuentes said. “In a white community, it’s perfectly normal. But in a Latino community, it’s kind of absurd.”
Diana Jimenez, executive director for Program Board, said this phenomenon may occur in part because of older generations’ collective experiences.
“I think about everything my grandparents had to endure, like getting their land taken away — even in the ’60s, their land taken away — their culture being erased and them not being able to speak the dialects that they are native to in order to conform to a society that didn’t even want them,” Jimenez said. “Coming to this University, I’ve seen everything that my family and my ancestors had to go through to be where we are now, so I can’t complain.”
Moreover, for Latino students, many of whom are first-generation college students, a different set of pressures arises.
“A lot of us have held previous jobs, and although some of us may not have gone to super rigorous high schools, we overcame a lot of financial barriers and a lot of institutionalized barriers to even be here,” Jimenez said.
Different minority groups often face pressures from different types of external forces. For black students, police brutality can profoundly affect mental health, said Kalan Leaks, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering.
“It’s almost like an innate thing that the black community is seen as these angry, vicious people,” Leaks said. “There’s a video every week of a person being [hurt] due to a perception of danger — not any actual danger whatsoever … So that makes me feel like I have to do extra things just to live.”
The perception of the black community as angry or violent leads to a greater feeling of invalidation that can profoundly affect mental health, Leaks said.
“So having these narratives pushed down upon you for such a long time, they eventually start creating that negative loop,” Leaks said. “People don’t go crazy in a vacuum.”
For black students and students of color alike, internalizing racism can be traumatic. And collectively, the unique challenges that students of color face on campus can be overwhelming.
“I think, on this campus, students of color, and marginalized students in general, burn out so much faster,” Nguyen said. “We have to bear the brunt of feeling constantly attacked and unsafe and invalidated and demeaned for who we are.”
Jimenez emphasized that self-care is essential for students of color to reclaim their narratives and take agency of their mental health.
“To be able to engage in that self-care is resistance in itself, and I think that’s the beauty of it,” she said.