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Mental Health and Discrimination: Facts, Resources, and Advice for Students

Connections between mental health, discrimination, and college students cannot be denied. Learn how you can find support and promote inclusivity on campus.

The intersection of college students, mental health, and discrimination forms a complex and critical nexus within the landscape of higher education. As young adults navigate the academic and social challenges of college life, they often find themselves grappling with various stressors that can significantly impact their mental well-being. Discrimination—whether based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or other factors—adds a layer of adversity that can exacerbate the strain on students' mental health. Let’s take a look at the connection between mental health and discrimination in college and what students can do to support and promote an inclusive campus community.

Discrimination and mental health in college

It’s important to recognize that different groups encounter different obstacles when it comes to mental health and therapy. According to the PennState Student Affairs Center for Collegiate Mental Health, 19.4% of university students who participated in their study reported discrimination based on at least one identity between July 2021 and June 2022. This may seem like a small percentage, but based on the number of participants in the study, this figure equates to one in five students. The average college class has between 20–25 students, meaning that at least four to five students have reported discrimination in each class. However, these figures only represent the students who participated and those who reported. Fear of reporting and related reasons fluctuate between different identities, including racial, gender, and sexual. The more we understand these obstacles, the better we can support and advocate for these groups in college and beyond.

Related: Mental Health: What It Is and How You Can Find Help

Racial discrimination

Colleges and universities are not immune from racial discrimination. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2020, 55% of reported hate crimes on university campuses were racially motivated, and 11% were based on ethnic background. Even within the mental health community, there are obstacles that Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, Asian, and other people of color face. In addition to various mental health stigmas and monetary barriers, members of the BIPOC community may also struggle to find professionals with shared cultural experiences. According to recruitment website Zippia, 72.6% of therapists are White, while Asian therapists only make up 11.3% of the field, followed by 7.9% Hispanic or Latino, and 4% Black or African American.

Gender discrimination

Gender discrimination in the mental health community goes in all directions. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, college-aged women are twice as likely to develop anxiety and depression than their male counterparts and also report more suicidal thoughts. In a study conducted by the National Library of Medicine, 50.9% of the college women they surveyed reported having at least one symptom of an eating disorder, while 21.8% of male students reported the same. Men too have their fair share of struggles when it comes to mental health; they are more likely to die by suicide and are also more prone to substance abuse, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Because of the pressures put on men and masculine-presenting persons to be “tough,” they often feel that seeking out help for mental health issues is compromising their masculinity, therefore hindering them from getting the care they need. Meanwhile, although they are more open to therapy, transgender and nonbinary students are actually less likely to get their needs met than their cis counterparts. The Jed Foundation reports that over 20% of TNB students have difficulty finding appointments or don't know where to start, while over 30% have financial disparities.

LGBTQ+ discrimination

With the current political environment in the United States, it’s more important than ever to bring attention to LGBTQ+ mental health. According to the Trevor Project, one in three queer college students had seriously contemplated suicide in the past year, with the highest rate of suicide consideration among queer students of color. In their 2022 survey, the Trevor Project found that over 80% of participants wanted mental health care, yet only 40% actually received that care. The reasons vary: A majority of students (48%) were afraid of discussing their mental health concerns, and 41% were faced with a lack of affordable care.

A companion study by the Williams Institute and the Point Foundation found that one-third of queer college students had been harassed, bullied, or assaulted at a four-year college in 2022. As for the queer BIPOC community, an article by American Progress reports that 24% of queer BIPOC received some form of negative or discriminatory treatment by a doctor or health care provider in 2020, compared to 17% of White queer participants who said the same.

Related: How to Find Community, Safety, and Support as an LGBTQ+ College Student

How we can help

It is everyone’s job to help students feel safe, heard, and appreciated in any campus community. To do this, the first step is to understand that there is no tolerance for bigoted behavior. If you see or hear other students being racist, sexist, xenophobic, or homophobic—no matter if they’re conscious of it or not—call them out. Passive compliance perpetuates discrimination; it is time to be an active ally. If you find yourself making excuses for someone's bigoted behavior just because you are friends, it may be time to think about what types of people you surround yourself with.

Educate yourself

Another way to be informed is to seek out education and clarification about things you are curious about, whether it’s the historical significance of Black hairstyles and why they are important, different queer communities and their respective identities, or the fluidity of gender. However, remember that it is not any person's responsibility to educate you and that educating conversations should be mutually consensual. While it’s vital to speak with and listen to different communities, that doesn't mean every single person you meet is going to be comfortable or willing to share their experiences. If you have the ability to ask, you also have the ability to do your own research. Joining student clubs or attending seminars and discussions are great ways to get yourself educated on fields you may not fully understand. It's also a great way to make friends!

Choose your words wisely

To create a more inclusive campus community, we must also self-reflect and deconstruct the bigotry we may have been taught (intentionally or unintentionally) growing up. One of the most important parts of adulthood is the deconstruction of thought and the buildup of new values and opinions. Our language can be one of the biggest factors that we must alter in this deconstruction. Besides the obvious avoidance of slurs and derogatory language, micro-aggressive words and phrases as well as harmful beliefs should also be addressed. Phrases like “grow a pair” or “man up” should be avoided, and incorporating person-centered language into your vocabulary is crucial. For example, using the term “enslaved person” as opposed to “slave” separates a person from their condition rather than roping them into one.

Be kind

Everyone deserves to feel loved, appreciated, safe, and included in their community. Our differences should be celebrated and not be used as a means to discriminate against one another. There are so many wonderful things about having different backgrounds and histories, and while we are all human beings, saying that we are all “the same” erases rich cultures that deserve to be celebrated. Mental health struggles are not something to joke about; they are serious and do not deserve to be taken lightly nor made fun of. It is vital to know that different people experience different things, and you don't always have to understand what those things are to care about them. It's not always about understanding—it's about respecting people's feelings and experiences above all else. Being kind, open, receptive, and supportive is oftentimes the best and only thing we can do.

Resources for students

There are many wonderful resources at our disposal, both for educational purposes and general use. Websites like Black Mental Wellness, the NAACP, and the University of Michigan's online collection of Racism and Anti-Racism courses can be used to educate yourself on the Black community, their history, and the obstacles they face. For BIPOC mental health information and resources, this Mental Health Coalition pamphlet offers more information on resources and counseling opportunities. It includes information and links to different organizations such as the Asian American Health Initiative, the Center for Native American Youth, and the Love Land Foundation. It also highlights resources like MindRight, which provides culturally responsive and trauma-informed support through daily messaging with trained coaches. You’ll find information on Inclusive Therapists and programs that help deconstruct mental health stigmas in Hispanic and Latino communities as well. And for LGBTQ young people, the Trevor Project offers counselors, resources, and 24/7 support.

Related: 5 Great Resources to Improve Mental Health for Students of Color

Tackling the interconnected challenges of mental health and discrimination among college students demands a comprehensive effort from the entire campus community. Colleges should work to proactively cultivate environments that are inclusive and supportive, establish and enforce anti-discrimination policies, and offer mental health resources that are easily accessible and destigmatized. Along with a collective effort from the student body, we can work to create safe environments in which everyone is able to excel both academically and emotionally.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in distress, call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for free and confidential support 24/7.

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