A soon-to-begin Sac State campaign will seek to collect more information about the specific mental health needs and preferences of students of color. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)
By Cynthia Hubert
Stress, anxiety and depression are common among college students, studies show. Students of color may be affected at higher rates and less likely to seek help.
Sacramento State aims to improve the mental health of students of color in a campaign that organizers hope ultimately leads to higher graduation rates among Black, Latinx and Asian-Pacific Islander scholars.
The effort is being funded by a $98,000 grant from the California Mental Health Services Administration. Sac State’s Student Health and Counseling Services will lead the project with the University’s Student Academic Success and Educational Equity Programs, the College of Health and Human Services, and other campus departments that serve students of color.
Studies have demonstrated a link between academic success and physical, emotional and mental health, said Reva Wittenberg, Sac State’s associate director for Campus Wellness.The National College Health Assessment has found that mental health concerns can affect learning, retention and productivity.
Untreated mental health issues may be partially responsible for the fact that students of color have lower graduation rates, Wittenberg said.
“At our counseling center we see a lot of anxiety among students,” she said. “We know that anxiety can disrupt studies, interfere with sleep and affect whether students go to class.”
Anxiety and stress seem particularly acute since March, when campuses across the country closed to stave off the potentially deadly coronavirus pandemic, experts have noted.
Mental illness remains a stigma, particularly within certain ethnic groups, said Wittenberg. “Some cultures don’t have the language” to describe mental health conditions, “so these students don’t talk about it in their families. It’s just not something that is discussed.”
In some cultures, men in particular are deemed weak if they talk about their emotional or mental health, Wittenberg said. “So they have a hard time seeking help.”
The new project, which begins shortly and continues for two years, seeks to gather more information about the specific mental health needs and preferences of students of color. With that data, organizers will create culturally sensitive campaigns for engaging them and encouraging them to seek help.
“It’s a matter of creating engagement methods that are relevant to different populations of students,” Wittenberg said.
Some outreach efforts will be communicated in Spanish. Some will be presented through existing Sac State programs that focus on different ethnic groups, such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Center and the Full Circle Project.
Ultimately, the goal is to help students of color succeed academically. In 2019, more than 26% of white students at Sac State graduated within four years, compared to about 13% of black students, 17% of Asian-Pacific Islanders and 21% of Latinx students.
The state grant “will help create a pathway of opportunity to explore the key factors contributing to student mental health concerns,” said Marcellene Watson-Derbigny, associate vice president for Student Retention and Academic Success.
“Ultimately, this work is paramount to helping students of color effectively deal with their life circumstances within the context of a caring community.”
As many as 800 students could be served by the new project, said Wittenberg.
Stress, sleep difficulties, anxiety and depression account for four of the top five reasons that Sac State students cite when they drop classes, she said.
“This project will help us identify and implement strategies to address these academic impediments in a culturally sensitive way,” Wittenberg said.
The campaign is an extension of services that Sac State already employs to help students maintain wellness.
Student Health and Counseling Services employs 17 full-time counselors, and its Active Minds mental health chapter has been recognized nationally as a leader. The University’s Out of the Darkness campus walk for suicide prevention was the largest event of its kind in 2018 and 2019.
Sac State health educator Lara Falkenstein said the University is working with Active Minds to offer new virtual workshops and presentations focusing on mental health in the coming year.
“We plan to use all of our digital and virtual resources options as much as possible to provide students with information regarding mental health, stigma reduction, and reaching out for help and support,” she said.