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Gathering Discusses Mental Health Issues Facing Minorities

By Marella A. Gayla and Michelle J. Hu

Students, alumni, and mental health professionals gathered to discuss the unique mental health struggles that can affect minority students in a “lunch and learn” session on Saturday afternoon.

Amidst a week of demonstrations against racism on numerous college campuses, including the University of Missouri at Columbia and Yale University, the event was co-hosted by the Harvard Black Alumni Society and the Steve Fund, an organization dedicated to wellbeing among students of color and established in memory of a Harvard alumnus who died by suicide.

The event at the Harvard Graduate School of Education featured two experts who drew on both personal experiences and their own research.

Annelle B. Primm ’76, a psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins University, spoke about her own experience as a student of color during her time at Harvard.

Although Primm found a “familial” network in the black community at Harvard and enjoyed many extracurricular activities, she said she faced challenges because of her race. Primm said she struggled to compete with classmates “from the most elite prep schools in the country” and was concerned that she was “fulfilling some of the negative stereotypes that people have about black students.”

Primm also discussed stigma toward mental illness within communities of color.

“I had concerns about calling attention to myself as a black student and not wanting to look like I couldn’t cut it,” she said. “I think there was, even from my family, that kind of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ mentality. Like, ‘Girl, you’re okay. Get yourself together.’”

Kevin Cokley, a professor in the departments of educational psychology and African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin, discussed his research.

He described an “impostor phenomenon,” which he called an “internal psychological factor” that often affects minority students. Those students might feel “like an intellectual fraud,” attribute their success to interpersonal rather than intellectual assets, and find themselves unable to internalize success, he said. Cokley’s recent study revealed that impostor feelings are a strong predictor for mental illness among minority students.

“Confident African-American students slowly and systematically are being broken down, becoming discouraged, and questioning their career goals because of...racial microaggressions,” Cokley said. “High impostor feelings have been linked to increased levels of depression and anxiety among ethnic minority students.”

During question and answer sessions, conference attendees often drew from their own personal experiences. Some had firsthand experiences with mental illness or work as professionals in the treatment field.

“It was more about hearing the stories, the personal experiences and getting the perspectives. It was amazing to hear experiences in being here,” Ritu Sharma, a psychologist at Tufts University, said.

The event marked the start of a partnership between the Steve Fund and the Harvard Black Alumni Society.

The Steve Fund was created in honor of Stephen C. Rose ’06, who jumped from William James Hall to his death at age 29 in 2014. The organization is dedicated to the emotional and mental well-being of college students of color.

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