Fostering A Culture of Connectedness and Mental Health in K-12 Schools and HBCUs

By Adam Powell

There’s an old saying, “When white people get a cold, black people get pneumonia.”

Never has this adage been more true than when considering the differential impact COVID-19 has had on black and white students. While all K-12 students have suffered from the pandemic in various ways, the collateral damage has been worn disproportionately by black youth. Scientific, Black K-12 students lost up to a full school year, far more so than their white counterparts. Socially and psychologically, the movement towards online platforms has harmed all youth, especially given the mental health crisis already looming for the demographic. However, the closure of public schools impacted black students increased as they were more likely to use school mental health services, to orders of magnitude. As a result, Suicide rates, depression and anxiety surged among black K-12 students, and with the primary pathways for mental health services restricted; Identification, diagnostics and service usage fell sharply.

Black college students didn’t fare much better. are facing a similar mental health crisis on their campus, regardless of university size, demographic composition, reputation, or academic focus; The mental health epidemic in higher education reveals well-known racial differences. Similar to their K-12 peers, it is significantly less common among black college students than their white counterparts receive a clinical diagnosis or misdiagnosis for mental health problems, even if they clearly meet a number of clinical criteria. This becomes even more problematic when considering side effects related to service usage; Black college students are about half as likely as white college students being treated for a serious mental illness. While some of these differences can be attributed to help-seeking behavior, stigma, and resource availability, the racist nature of treatment gaps points to an urgent need for intervention.

In fact, K-12 public schools began to rebuild programs that care holistically for students and established schools as focal points for acquiring resources. Armed with a newfound appreciation for how staff can use online platforms in the service of student mental health, while not a perfect substitute for face-to-face contact, K-12 schools are now viewed as an integral part of the well-being of their students . Likewise, K-12 schools are highly attuned to the pressures faced by elementary and secondary school students, as well as the public, and as such, public schools, supplementary education providers, and staff have increased efforts to bring mental health-related programs digitally and in person accommodate students who are struggling early on and wrap them in a continuum of caring.

As are historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs); They now number over 100 nationally, although concentrated in 19 states they make up a small fraction of the overall higher education landscape. Still, they are powerhouses when it comes to educational outcomes and promoting economic mobility, while serving a larger proportion of traditionally underserved and low-income students and charging lower tuition than most predominantly white institutions (PWIs). Although many of these venerable institutions could almost be described as small one-fifth of all African American college graduates come from HBCUs. Luckily I count myself among them.

Nonetheless, even within HBCUs, where the campus climate protects participants from much of the discrimination, bias, and microaggressions they contribute to Racial trauma and stress, we cannot completely isolate students from the larger world. We cannot erase the long-term effects of social inequality, economic insecurity, or the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Black students, on average, already faced increased socioeconomic stressors, lower-quality K-12 preparation, racism, and discrimination

before arriving on campus but now facing employment disruptions, food insecurity, technology gaps and a higher likelihood of negative health outcomes for family members who contracted the virus, while mental health access has been challenged by closures, off-campus residency and understaffing. School-based services are especially important for black students of all ages, whether on a college campus or in a K-12 public school.

Looking at the mental health of HBCU students during the pandemic, the trends reflect the K-12 system. shows a significant increase in depression and anxiety, which are typically lower for African-American students enrolled at HBCUs compared to those attending PWIs. Regardless of structural treatment barriers, social and historical factors [like distrust of mental health professionals] already reduce willingness to seek help, even when it is available. However, online classes and dorm closures contributed to this increased insulation For many HBCU students, mostly Black, a feeling likely unfamiliar to them given the supportive and welcoming environment on campus and the close connection they report. While HBCU students did slightly better than their peers at PWIs, the resources initially earmarked and available for mental health interventions were limited because our HBCUs tend to receive fewer resources. However, in the past they have managed to do more with less and create meaningful and strong support networks.

HBCUs provide a clear opportunity to change the culture around mental health, continue to work to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, and address persistent underdiagnosis and misdiagnosis for our African American students. in true form, Our HBCUs across the country have already begun refocusing campuses on mental wellbeingLeading additional resources, staffing and training on mental health, engagement meaningful conversations to destigmatize mental illness, launch awareness campaigns, and seek targeted funding and partnerships to develop innovative programs. Similar to their K-12 counterparts, HBCUs have developed rapid assessment strategies in campus counseling centers and trained faculty with programs such as “First Responders.” Mental health first aid and recommendation systems.

We are uniquely poised in our HBCUs to continue to serve the historically underserved, and mental health is simply a new area to challenge as we have in the past. This way we can prove again that we are in fact SWAC.

Adam D Powell

President and CEO

Communities in Dallas-area schools