Conference explores unique mental health challenges of students of color

Earlier this month, nearly 350 people from at least 25 states gathered at Houston Hall for the Steve Fund’s fourth annual Young, Gifted & @Risk Conference, a partnership with Penn and its Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) team.

The event was the nonprofit’s largest turnout yet, with researchers, faculty, staff, students, family members, and mental health professionals all uniting under one cause: to better understand and address the mental health and emotional well-being of students of color.

“People of color confront unique challenges in the world, and college campuses are no different,” said Penn Provost Wendell Pritchett, at the program’s opening. “The pressure to achieve and the unique pressures of our young people of color [and their] experiences can be debilitating. And as we’ve seen recently on our own campus, even with the best support structures in place, they can be deadly.”

Even more concerning, Pritchett continued, is research that has found that young people of color are more likely than their white peers to feel overwhelmed in college, and less likely to seek help.

“These are troubling trends with potentially disastrous consequences,” Pritchett said.

The Conference—a critical component to the Steve Fund’s knowledge-building strategy—has been hosted by a different higher education partner each year. Beginning at Brown in 2014, continuing at Stanford in 2015, and in 2016 at Washington University, it was no coincidence it landed at Penn this year.

Instrumental in bringing the Conference to Penn’s campus was Meeta Kumar, director of outreach and prevention and a psychologist at CAPS, which is part of the Division of the Vice Provost for University Life. Talking after the event, Kumar, who served on a panel at last year’s Conference in St. Louis, said she knew “Penn was the perfect spot to do it.

“Starting from our incredibly diverse community and just thinking about the world of mental health, our whole model of outreach and prevention is serving diverse communities in nontraditional ways,” she explained. “We have been keeping an eye on stigma, building a community-based model for a long time, and we wanted to bring our own expertise to a national conversation.”

Not only an opportunity for Penn experts to share best practices, the event was also a major learning experience for the University’s own community. In the coming weeks, Kumar said CAPS and its campus partners plan to come together to address gaps in care and services on campus.

The daylong conference began with keynote speaker Howard Stevenson, the Constance Clayton Professor of Urban Education at the Graduate School of Education and executive director of the Racial Empowerment Collaborative.

He engaged the crowd with his own personal experiences, and noted the distinct mindset of young people of color who are “struggling with their smartness in a context that didn’t believe that they could be smart.

“Undergraduate and graduate students across this country who are of color or who struggle with the heritage of their difference are trying to prove that they are strong by going it alone,” said Stevenson, also a professor of Africana studies and director of Forward Promise. “They believe that by not revealing any vulnerabilities, they somehow escape the diagnosis of weakness no matter how high their scores and grades are. But there is a cost to this rugged individualism.”

Explaining the importance of racial literacy, he encouraged deep, stressful conversations “in the healthiest ways” during his lecture, as well as throughout the rest of the day.

Panels continued during the Conference, including discussions that touched on students of color who are activists, face Islamophobia, or are first-generation and low-income. Sessions also explored the influence of gender identities and sexual orientation on the well-being of college students of color, safe spaces on campus, challenges for students with international and undocumented statuses, and much more.

The Steve Fund was launched four years ago after mental illness took the life of 29-year-old Stephen Rose, a Harvard graduate. Evan Rose, Steve’s brother and the Fund’s president, said at the time he and his family “knew colleges and universities had a vital role to play in better supporting the mental health of young people of color, but we didn’t suspect the situation would become even more dire.

“Think of Charlottesville,” he continued. “Think of the anxiety of dreamers who have to worry about deportation.”

In tandem with the Conference, Rose announced for the first time the “Equity in Mental Health Framework.” For the past two years, the Steve Fund and the Jed Foundation, along with leading mental health experts, higher education leaders, and students, worked together to develop the list of 10 actionable recommendations for colleges and universities to support and enhance the mental health of students of color.

A very “powerful tool,” Rose said, “there’s never been anything like this in the history of American higher education.”

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