Black Mental Health Forum opens intersectional dialogue

Anjali Vishwanath | Contributing Reporter

The Black Mental Health Forum, sponsored by the Association of Black Students, provided a space for students to openly discuss mental health in the black community Friday, Nov. 17.

Facilitated by Uncle Joe’s Peer Counseling and Resource Center, the conversation centered around the mental health challenges specific to black students on campus and how students can productively address those issues.

“There is a lot of stigma in the black community around mental health,” sophomore Cheryl Mensah, an Uncle Joe’s facilitator and member of the Association of Black Students (ABS), said. “But it is definitely prevalent in the black community, particularly at [Washington University]. I thought we needed to have this forum [to] give people a space to learn and also be heard, and just know more about how to better support their friends, recognize the warning signs and learn some coping mechanisms for how to deal with stress and anxiety.”

In the week preceding the forum, facilitators sent out a survey asking students about their perceptions and experiences of mental health in the black community and what questions they had. They included these anonymous responses in a presentation that guided the conversation.

Mensah was surprised by how many people responded to the survey.

“We had over 60 people participate in the survey and almost everybody had something to say,” Mensah said. “There were a lot of stories and perspectives that I didn’t necessarily know or understand, but there was also a lot that I related to and that other black students at Wash. U. could, too. That was a really good step to normalize the experience and let people know that they’re really not alone.”

The responses overwhelmingly mentioned how mental health issues are especially taboo in black communities and that they feel burdened by extra stresses and responsibilities.

“As a community that seems to be frequently burdened with the task of justifying its own worth and humanity, the mental health ailments that would be associated with such a task are rejected in discussion and often stigmatized,” one student wrote.

Survey responses also referenced the isolation some black students feel in classes, the uncomfortable nature of being “tokenized” and the feeling of being seen as a statistic and not as a person.

ABS member and sophomore Gabrielle Samuel appreciated the opportunity to hear about other black students’ experiences.

“I think it was really informative,” Samuel said. “It opened my eyes to the experiences of people in the black community in regards to mental health—having to feel like we have to prove ourselves, overlooked in classes, that stress and not necessarily being heard and understood by family and friends sometimes.”

After reading these responses, students were asked to break into smaller groups and reflect on their own experiences. The facilitators then asked for volunteers to share what their groups had talked about, if they were comfortable.

The facilitators also shared that 93.3 percent of the survey respondents have been concerned about mental health, 68 percent have dealt with anxiety or panic attacks, 62 percent have experienced depression and 46 percent reported that they have dealt with suicidal ideation.

Samuel and Mensah were both struck by the percentage of respondents who admitted that they have had suicidal thoughts.

“I was shocked. That’s almost 50 percent of people saying they’ve thought of killing themselves, and that’s crazy to me,” Samuel said.

“I think I was really concerned by how many people struggled with suicidal ideation in our community. It’s not OK—no part of that is OK. The fact that almost half of our community has considered suicide, that’s ridiculous,” Mensah said.

At the end of the discussion, the facilitators discussed resources that students could reach out to, demonstrated how to validate others’ feelings and provided general coping strategies.

Alayzha Jordan, a sophomore and member of ABS, acknowledged the importance of the open dialogue.

“It made me try to understand more about what’s going on with the people who are around me and really understand that this is not just a thing that happens in passing; this is a serious issue that we all continuously go through,” Jordan said. “It’s not a thing that happens today and is gone tomorrow; it’s a thing that keeps going. It makes me want to be there more for people who are in the black community.”

Mensah believes that the discussion went successfully and hopes that black students will keep talking about their struggles with mental health.

“I’m really glad that we did it and that it went so well,” Mensah said. “It’s definitely not the end, there’s so much more that needs to be said, and there’s so much more that needs to be acknowledged. And I think it was a really good first step in terms of continuing to foster the conversation on black mental health.”