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Wednesday June 29th

HBCU representatives hold summit on pandemic's disparate effect on mental health

HBCU representatives hold summit on pandemic's disparate effect on mental health.
Buy Photos HBCU representatives hold summit on pandemic's disparate effect on mental health.

Amber Brown, a second-year graduate student in the clinical psychology department at North Carolina Central University, went back to school after realizing that she wanted to help people who look like her.

And at a recent mental health summit, she shared her experiences. 

Brown noted that in situations where she has sought out mental health services, she's come across people who weren't culturally competent and didn't understand her issues. 

“It's certainly valuable to have people who have a shared experience in that position,” she said. "I want to be one of those people."

On Feb. 23, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services partnered with historically Black colleges and universities to host a mental health summit.

The summit, Peeling Back the Layers on Minority Mental Health,” aimed to address the needs of minority students and faculty at HBCUs in North Carolina and the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Today is really about hearing from our HBCUs, from our administrators, from our school leaders and most importantly from our students,” said Deepa Avula, director for the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services of NCDHHS, at the summit.

Panelists included NCDHHS leaders and representatives from HBCUs across the state, including Bennett College, Fayetteville State University and Elizabeth City State University. 

Effects of the pandemic 

At the summit, HBCU staff said that they have witnessed the pandemic taking a toll on students' lives and mental health, even after two years.

“I've seen a totally big jump on trauma with our students and, of course, grief,” said Aishia Griffin, director of Counseling Services at Bennett College. 

The pandemic has caused financial difficulties, and some students have had to act as caregivers and providers for their families on top of school work, Griffin said. She added many students have lost family members because of COVID-19. 

“What COVID has done, in my opinion, and my view, is it exacerbating all of that, it just really pushed everything out to the forefront,” she said. 

Fayetteville State University Master's of Social Work Director Beverly Edwards said isolation and remote learning significantly affected students' social skills, academic performance and community connections.

“Human beings are social creatures by nature," Edwards said. "That's who we are, right. We have to be able to talk and lay hands.” 

NCDHHS Secretary Of Health and Human Services Kody Kinsley said there has been an increase in anxiety and depression during the pandemic that's affected African Americans more than their white counterparts. 

According to a February 2021 study published by non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation, non-Hispanic Black adults and Hispanic or Latino adults were more likely to report anxiety and depressive disorder symptoms than non-Hispanic whites. 

Additionally, from access to healthcare to housing, the pandemic has worsened existing issues that have disproportionately affected the health outcomes for people of color across the country.

Solutions proposed

Medicaid, substance abuse treatment, accessible counseling, therapy, reentry efforts for incarcerated people and suicide prevention programs were mentioned by NDHHS leaders as existing efforts to address mental health disparities. 

Terrell Richardson, a second-year master's student at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, said addressing stigmas around mental health, particularly amongst the Black community, is the first step in improving conditions. 

“I really think the way to increase Black folks coming into the field of mental health is really by tackling that stigma around mental health," Richardson said.

Jimmy Chambers, student body president at ECSU, said professors must get students' minds off of the pandemic by ensuring their classes are engaging and by developing strategies to get students out of their rooms.

“At the end of the day, this is not the normal collegiate just encourage your students and let them know like, 'Hey, I know right now is not an easy time, but I'm still proud of you for trying to continue your education and you're not giving up,'" he said.

Chambers also said that greater funding will allow for people from marginalized communities to have more access to the resources that they need. 

Jody Grandy, director of Student Counseling Services at ECSU, said the school's campus has utilized social media to educate students on the campus’s mental health resources and counseling centers.

Still, she said, that a lot of students are unwilling or fearful to get help even if they do have access to it.

“We have to be creative in looking at our population," Grandy said. "It’s not a one-size-fits-all.” 

She and her staff are working to meet students where they’re at. She questioned what to do if a student is not ready for counseling, saying it takes an understanding of mental health, empathy, and patience to help someone without thinking their issues have an immediate solution.

“It’s not mental illness — it's more mental wellness," Grandy said. "Let's talk about you being well. Let's talk about you being successful.” 


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