Student organizations discuss mental health experiences across communities of color

By Colm Slevin, Senior Staff Writer

Student organizations representing various communities of color gathered late last month to discuss their experiences with mental health both within their own community, as well as those that are shared across many communities.

Isabel Lam, the advocacy chair for the Asian Student Alliance, said it’s not very often that cultural organizations on campus host one event together.

“I personally really loved it,” Lam, a sophomore political science and economics major, said. “And for the event to be a conversation about mental health and how a lot of the same mental health themes stem from our childhoods. We just never have had the time or the opportunity to really express to each other how similar our experiences have been and through talking with people in the group and a few events.”

Several cultural organizations — including the Asian Student Alliance, Muslim Student Association, Black Action Society, Multiracial Student Association, African Student Organization and Pan-Caribbean Aliance — co-hosted an event on Oct. 27 titled “Mental Health Conversations Across Communities of Color.” The event at the William Pitt Union began with representatives from each group presenting on mental health issues that were specific to their community, before switching to a group discussion.

BAS and 17 other Black student organizations released a series of demands to the University in June 2020, covering topics including amplifying the Black student voice, increasing the number of Black students and faculty, curriculum changes, additional training for employees and Pitt police reforms. One of these demands was increasing the number of counselors of color in the University Counseling Center. Pitt’s Division of Student Affairs launched an Anti-racism, Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan in July 2020, which included plans to increase the UCC’s clinical capacity to align with the percentage of Black students on campus by hiring additional Black clinicians.

Zainab Akhtar, a junior psychology major and vice president of MSA, said she learned from each group’s presentation that the stigma surrounding mental health was similar across many different communities of color. 

“We’re talking about [our backgrounds] and how it affected us and we’re realizing how similar all of our high school experiences were,” Akhtar said. “It was very eye-opening because we weren’t offering the same backgrounds, but we did have very similar experiences.”

Akhtar said MSA presented on how a large percentage of the Muslim community is composed of first-generation immigrants and that the conversation surrounding mental health in many Muslim households is overshadowed by the sacrifices made by their parents to come to America. Akhtar said she learned this was a similar experience across many different communities — that many parents will ignore their child’s mental health issues and instead only focus on the hardships they personally had to overcome.

Lam, who is also the child of parents who are immigrants, said she didn’t realize how mental health issues within the Asian community are so similar to those in other communities of color. Lam also said she was especially moved by MUSA’s presentation on the intersection of cultural identity and mental health. Lam said this was something on her mind, and she found it interesting.

According to Lam, MUSA discussed how communities with multiple cultural identities deal with mental health issues, and issues that come from being part of multiple communities. Lam said the presentation informed her that it is important to highlight mental health issues in communities of color and multiracial communities, and specifically how the stigma of mental health can come from more than one community.

“These mental health issues could also tie into your own cultural identity issues,” Lam said. “I didn’t fully realize how tough these conversations may be when you have a mixed identity and have to deal with that cultural identity facet and then also having to deal with mental health that comes with both of those communities.”

After each group presented about mental health issues experienced by their community, participants discussed three questions at their respective tables. Selam Gillett, executive secretary of BAS, said each one of the questions that followed the presentations got more specific about the intersectionality of mental health and race.

“The first round really kind of just spoke about how mental health stigma has affected the way that we take care of our own mental health and how our ethnicity and cultural identity shaped our perception of mental health, Gillett, a sophomore psychology and sociology major, said.And spoke a little bit about diversity in the lack of diversity in our own areas where we grew up, and how mental health was a proponent of that, then we slowly got a little bit deeper.”

Gillett said the event created a space to have a conversation about mental health issues not just within one community, but in multiple other communities of color.

“It was kind of refreshing to understand we’re not alone as different communities of color,” Gillett said. “I know the Black community really has their own recognition with mental health and what is missing from the conversation when it comes to the Black community, but to be in a space where you can kind of connect on that same level of life experience. And I think it was really nice to see not just the connection between our own community but other various communities.”

Gillett said one of her key takeaways from the event was that mental health resources are critical to have on campus, especially for people of color. She said these groups are often ignored during discussions surrounding mental health issues and when they try to seek resources.

“I want everybody to understand that mental health should be something that is accessible to all students,” Gillett said. “And especially communities of color because they’ve often been neglected when it comes to mental health.”

Akhtar said the benefit of having these conversations is that future generations may not have to deal with the same issues of racism, the stigmatization of mental health and the intersection of the two. 

“If we address it, it’s not only going to hopefully be better for future generations,” Akhtar said. “But it’s also going to allow us to look inside and see those issues for ourselves and be able to work on that first.”