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UNC students of color find mental health support through community

UNC sophomore neuroscience major Mariam Hasan, first-year pre-business administration major Leila Dahir, sophomore media and journalism major Ndumbeh Boye, sophomore neuroscience major Mash Sulieman, and first-year business administration major Anosha Shah are pictured on World Hijab Day on Feb. 1, 2024.

This article is part of the Mental Health Collaborative, a project completed by nine North Carolina college newsrooms to cover mental health issues in their communities. To read more stories about mental health, explore the interactive project developed specifically for this collaborative.

When UNC senior Jessica Holloway first came to UNC, it was difficult for her to find community on campus, both as a student during the COVID-19 pandemic and as a Black student at a predominantly white institution.

As of fall 2023, 54.5 percent of UNC’s student population identified as white, while approximately 13 percent of the student population identified as Asian, nine percent as Hispanic and around nine percent as Black or African-American.

Holloway said that other students of color she has talked to have said that not seeing many people who look like them on campus can take a toll on their mental health.

Being the only Black student in a class or not seeing many Black classmates in their major, Holloway said that students may begin to feel that they don’t belong.

“It's easy to feel like — or have someone convince you — that you're only there because of a quota or you're only there because you got in because you were Black,” Holloway said.

UNC has many mental health resources specifically for people of color, both through UNC's Counseling and Psychological Services and student-led groups. These groups are meant to be safe spaces for students to express mental health challenges to people who can understand their unique experiences.

Cici Salazar, program assistant for the Carolina Latinx Center,  said because of some elements their cultural backgrounds, Latinx students can find it to be difficult to destigmatize mental health.

For some students, art clubs and groups act as an outlet for them to communicate their feelings creatively.

Junior Anshu Shah, president and editor-in-chief of Monsoon, UNC’s South Asian magazine, said that the club hopes that the work they feature destigmatizes mental health struggles for the South Asian community.  

“In order for [mental health] to be a more open thing that everyone can talk about, we encourage submissions for it — we encourage submissions that can make the artists feel like their mental health is being heard and taken into consideration,” Shah said

Another group that combines mental well-being with creativity is the CAPS group Dancing Mindfulness for Emotional Wellness, which is specifically for students of color. In this group, students read "The Gifts of Imperfection" by Brené Brown, discuss emotional wellness principles and dance to whatever music they like.

Mil Witt, assistant director of psychology training at UNC and the leader of Dancing Mindfulness, said the movement part of the group is especially important, given how much time students spend stressed and sitting in one place.

“In addition to talking about the emotional wellness principles, we're also helping to relieve some of that stress through the movement practice,” Witt said. “And it's very empowering because they have a choice.”

Other CAPS groups are catered to multiple communities at once. CAPS therapist Sophia Davis started the therapy group Intersections: A QTPOC Support Group in fall 2021, created for students of color who are on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, or are questioning their gender or sexuality. 

Davis began the group after hearing that students were looking for a space that allowed them to discuss both aspects of their identities. Davis said that LGBTQ+ people of color are disproportionately affected by mental health issues, and a chosen community can provide protection and support. 

For students of color seeking connection, Apoyo is the CLC’s mental health support group for undergraduates. The group is run by UNC double-alumna Theresa FloresThe group offers a brave space for members to share the "experiences, joys and challenges that come along with identifying and experiencing life as a Latinx person," according to the program's website.

“The whole purpose of doing Apoyo was to bring the community together and really break the stigma of what is mental health within our community,’ Salazar said

Some students of color also build communities in spaces historically held by white students, like Greek life. Holloway is the president of the Kappa Omicron Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., UNC’s first African American sorority. 

She said being part of her sorority "completely made" her UNC experience and opened doors to a larger community. There, she was welcomed not only by her chapter but also by other Black Greek life members.

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“Without my chapter, without my sorority, I would have a very hard time being at UNC and enjoying that time,” she said.

First-year Fatima Khan said she found community through UNC’s Muslim Student Association before even stepping foot on campus.

She said she wasn’t sure she wanted to go to UNC until they made her feel involved and welcome. At UNC, she tried using CAPS and said it did not compare to having friends she knew she could reach out to. 

“I didn't feel as connected in group therapy as I did with just knowing that there's a Muslim community and there's Muslim people I can reach out to and feel comfortable around,” she said.

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