Why Black Students’ Mental Health Is Suffering

The pandemic and protests are hurting mental health like never before. And Black students feel the brunt of it.

Photo: GoodLifeStudio/Getty Images

As the dual forces of the Covid-19 pandemic and racial justice protests persist, another stressor is being added to the lives of young people across the country: school reopening. A June 2020 survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that anxiety symptoms were three times as prevalent as those reported in late 2019 and depression was four times higher for the same period. According to reporting from the New York Times based on the survey, the mental health effects of the coronavirus pandemic have been felt most keenly by young adults ages 18 to 24.

Black students face the unique challenge of being disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, and with the backdrop of racial justice protests continuing across the nation, we’re left to wonder if schools are offering the support needed for them to thrive.

I spoke with three Black students about their experiences.

Asha Hassan-Nooli, 19, sophomore at The New School in New York City

For most of us, keeping up with the news is already draining. If you add in disproportionate Covid-19 deaths among Black and Brown populations and former President Trump’s tweets, you can try to imagine how staying tuned into current events is downright exhausting for Black students. Asha mentions how she copes.

“The internet makes it so easy for you to be bombarded with everything bad happening in the world at once. I find it so important to find time in the day to center yourself and refocus on where your intuitions lead you to.”

Her extra time at home has led her to use social media more, which is both beneficial and detrimental. While social media provides an escape from boredom, it can also feel like “an echo chamber of misfortune and misery,” she said. “I had to reintroduce things like casual strolls and walks to the park into my life to ground myself in the physical nature of the world.”

Asha is currently doing online classes and says it’s a lot harder than in-person education. The focus of school has shifted from learning the material to submitting before deadlines, adding yet another stressor during quarantine.

“Increasingly it is becoming harder to prioritize schooling. It seems like [school] notifications should be the least of my concerns.”

The Black Student Union at her school has hosted several Zoom sessions designed to foster open discussion about current events and has served as a safe space for her and other people in the African diaspora to express views on race and race relations.

“This pandemic urged me to take care of mental health even more than ever before,” says Asha.

Aria Velasquez, 28, graduate student at Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY in New York City

For Aria, the racial justice protests happening right now feel like a “seesaw.”

“On the one hand, for the time being there seems to be some sustained momentum that I haven’t seen in the past, and there are a lot of people who would not have been actively involved[…] who are definitely involved now,” says Aria, referring to the Black Lives Matter protests and racial justice activism this summer.

“But also, there is this massive incoming wave of White supremacy and fascism. It feels like governmental power threatens to overtake any momentum people who are fighting for racial justice may be able to gather in the first place. That makes me really scared and really nervous.” Aria struggled to muster any optimism before the November presidential election. “America runs on White grievance and rage and that never ends well for Black people,” Aria says. Even the outcome, she noted, is the result of “White grievance and rage,” she believes.

On top of the looming political climate, Aria is dealing with the stress of navigating graduate school. “There’s just a different level of stress and nervousness,” she continues, noting that the graduate program she is in can be more unforgiving than the workplace at times. “If you screw something up, that’s your grade.”

When asked how she plans to manage these stressors, she replies that she will be looking for a therapist to do one-on-one sessions with and start attending a support group for Black graduate students that her school is facilitating.

Somali Crump, 20, junior at the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, D.C.

“There is so much going on and I feel like I often have to choose between being informed [of the news] and not going insane,” Somali starts.

Somali talks about how the racial justice protests that have been brought about from the murder of George Floyd surprisingly revealed to her that there are White people and others who legitimately have not thought of the concept of race yet. “It’s very telling,” she said.

Like millions of other students across the country, Somali’s been struggling with remote instruction. “My school is completely online, but it’s obvious that they’re trying to cram 15 weeks of work into 12 weeks,” Somali said. “It’s pretty stressful trying to get things done and I’m so bothered that my tuition has barely changed when I’m sitting at home teaching myself these courses.”

The start of school has created a “huge bubble of stress,” and to cope she has been trying to pick up other hobbies like art, knitting, crocheting, and learning carpet-making. “I feel like where we are right now, art is all we have.”

Freelance journalist in The New York Times, Business Insider, GEN, Elemental, and more. 📧: rainierharris3@gmail.com

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Momentum is a blog that captures and reflects the moment we find ourselves in, one where rampant anti-Black racism is leading to violence, trauma, protest, reflection, sorrow, and more. Momentum doesn’t look away when the news cycle shifts.

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