How Black Women Are Conquering Mental Health Issues At HBCUs

Being a Black woman in today’s society can be incredibly hard. From the daily pressures of maintaining society’s “superwoman” view, to the need to always seem strong – the mental health of Black women across the country is wavering. The organization Black Women’s Health Imperative reported that “the percentage of Black women 18 years and older who report feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness is a tiny bit higher than for white women.”

For example, 3.9% of the Black women interviewed said that they felt “sad” compared to 2.9% of white women. The need for proper resources and medical care is being demanded now more than ever. This especially needs to be done at what are recognized as safe spaces for young Black adults, such as HBCUs. HBCU organizations for Black college-aged women and Black female HBCU alumni are working to ensure that the nation’s HBCUs properly care for the strong Black women on their campus.

For some Black women, they have been facing mental health struggles long before pursuing higher education. From isolation to racial trauma, the concern over the mental health of Black female college students is not a new issue.

“My childhood was spent in predominantly white environments,” Dr. Alfiee M. Breland-Noble, founder of the AAKOMA Project, said. “I grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia…Going to Howard really was a respite. It was an opportunity to just be an intelligent, high achieving Black girl and that wasn’t an anomaly. In some ways, going to Howard really gave me an opportunity to just be a fish in water…the fish doesn’t think about being in water, it just swims…My mental health was really supported and bolstered by being in an all Black environment. I mean, Howard wasn’t even predominantly Black.”

“This was like the 80s and 90s, it was all Black…” Dr. Breland-Noble continued. “It was after I left Howard that there were once again, a lot of additional challenges… I have four degrees total. Three are from PWIs and my undergrad is from Howard. At every one of the PWIs, there were constant challenges around racial trauma, racial stress and feeling isolated in the academic environment. Duke University was one, I have a degree from the medical school. Then Wisconsin was the other.”

You can imagine that in Madison, Wisconsin, there are hardly any Black people. That was even down to not being able to get your hair done,” she said.

Simply not being able to feel their best physically through not having services such as a Black hair salon added to the racial stressors and trauma Dr. Breland-Noble experienced.

“When you can’t look like you want to look, it makes it harder to feel positive and feel like you want to feel because the idea is they don’t even have hairdressers for me. So what’s wrong with my hair that these people in this environment can’t even think to put a business here for somebody to take care of hair like mine… I think the biggest thing was those racial stressors and the racial trauma, which was the complete opposite of my experience at Howard…Those were the challenges to my mental health,” Dr. Breland-Noble said.

In today’s current climate, the pressure and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected the mental health of current Black female HBCU students.

“For every student that I’ve come across…Every Black woman who I’ve talked to who goes to Howard, COVID had a huge impact on the way we do things here,” Lauren Alford, President of the Howard University organization Black Women For Themselves, said. “We weren’t able to gather like we usually do. At Howard University, we’re known for our gatherings and for that sense of community.”

“So all of a sudden, it was gone and everything was virtual. When you’re virtual and you’re in a classroom, it feels like a marathon. It’s as if you’re isolated and you don’t have that motivation and accountability…You’re just alone. The anxiety starts to come in about how well you’re doing. Then the depression as well, because it’s as if you’ve been robbed of your college experience almost,” Alford continued.

In an environment that still expects full participation and effort despite all of the internal and external factors that could affect one’s mental health, Black women on HBCU campuses today are truly facing an even more overwhelming college experience.

“For sure, I’ve faced lots of mental health challenges. I currently have a counselor because I did get to a point earlier on in the semester where it was just seemingly unbearable,” DaChar Lane, a member of Black Women For Themselves, said. “There’s a lot going on and lots of clubs and orgs. I’m an RA and I have a job…I always tell my residents to talk to people, even if you can’t find a counselor. I see counseling like your primary doctor…I think it’s really important to just go whether you think you need them at that time or not. I think that’s always a great resource.”

Being able to know when to turn to medication (despite some of the still negative and outdated reactions in the Black community) as well as learning to be in harmony with yourself are essential.

“For me, personally, I had to go down the medication route. I think that’s also specifically a big thing in the Black community. The stigma behind that and whether it’s okay or not, because we’re supposed to be perceived and looked at a certain type of way. Whether you’re doing natural remedies if you will, or medication or whatever helps you, I think is really important…Learning to be in tune with yourself, your surroundings, your emotions and just knowing that you might get over a depressive episode but that’s not the end of your mental health journey…Really weathering those storms and getting those tools to make the longevity of your mental health a good place to be,” Lane said.

While HBCUs are seen as a safe space for Black students to be surrounded by people who look and think like them, it does not mean that there is no work that still needs to be done. A 2021 article by PsychCentral stated that “Black Americans are 20% more likely to have serious mental health conditions.” However, “about 50% of Black students report they have never received any mental health education prior to college.” This leads to higher negative mental health statistics in the community, with “overall 40% of Black college students experiencing mental health issues.” HBCUs not only need to have resources such as therapists and proper treatments available – They need to properly advertise them and teach their students how their mental health can affect them in the first place.

“Are there resources there? Yes. Are they flawed? I would also say yes. We have counseling centers. Everything that I feel is mandated, if you will, to have any university. Do a lot of students use those resources? I would say no. I think the way that they approach mental health is flawed. I think their timing is off as well…We have a mental health day tomorrow because of the bombings and everything that was going on. Their approach to it is very PR centered. It’s not genuine, if that makes sense,” Lane said.

These flawed resources include students only having access to counseling services for a short amount of time.

“I’ve had friends that tried to reach out to counseling and things like that. When they went there, they learned that they were only offered three sessions. They were like, ‘Well, I don’t think I can fix depression in three sessions’ …The resources are there, but to be honest, sometimes I feel like they’re more for show than they are genuine…” Mia Bennett-Jones, Vice-President of Black Women For Themselves, said.

While there is still work that needs to be done in the country’s HBCUs, organizations like the AAKOMA Project and Black Women For Themselves are working to provide a safe space and resources for Black female students and beyond. AAKOMA has the mission of building “the consciousness of youth of color and their caregivers on the recognition and importance of mental health, empowers youth and their families to seek help and manage mental health, and influences systems and services to receive and address the needs of youth of color and their families.”

Black Women For Themselves work as “Howard University’s premier radical feminist organization” that believe that “the root of the problem when it comes to sexism and misogyny in day to day life, is the system of patriarchy. We won’t be able to eliminate that until we eliminate the problems that are at the root,” according to Alford. Both of these organizations in their mission and daily work are working to support college-aged Black women however they can.

”At the AAKOMA Project, we’re about three things. I feel like these three pillars and ideals are really what makes us stand out and allow us to help young Black women and young women of color in ways that maybe some other organizations can’t,” Dr. Breland-Noble said. “One is because it’s led by a Black woman who went to a HBCU and PWIs. So I do understand the context that these women are growing, developing and functioning within. I understand that there are assaults around identity. There are assaults around like sexual assault, that is an issue for our young women. There are issues around intergenerational trauma and what we carry with us into these settings. There’s racial trauma among so many other things.”

The AAKOMA Project works to educate and empower Black women to take control of their mental health.

“Black women are functioning within the context of all these things swirling around us…Knowing all of that at the AAKOMA Project, we are about raising consciousness, empowering people… I think about the context of empowering people for Black women and changing the system. The idea is, if a Black woman never gets into the chair of a psychologist, clinical social worker or a counselor, at least we at AAKOMA are trying to provide her with tools to practice self care in terms of her mental health,” Dr. Breland-Noble said.

While there has not been new events as of yet, BWFT has plans to help the Black community in their HBCU and beyond as much as they can.

“We haven’t been able to put on as many events as we wanted to or really any events because we’re a relatively new organization. We have a lot of plans in the works and we want to do donation drives to local domestic violence shelters…help provide support to victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment in the our community, also with fighting patriarchy…” Alford said.

There are steps that Black female students at their local HBCUs can take in order to strengthen their mental health and not just survive the day, but thrive.

“For me, I prioritize sleep…I have to sleep. If I have homework or anything, I will choose to sleep..I also feel I try to manage the things that deplete me. If I know that a certain class is going to take a lot out of me, I plan time after it or plan time before it to just do nothing. That way I’m able to interact with this certain activity, class or even person and not feel completely drained after. I think just prioritize rest and to manage the things that deplete you,” Brittany Okeke, a member of Black Women For Themselves, said.

One of the best tasks a Black woman in today’s society can accomplish when it comes to their mental health is knowing herself inside and out.

“Learn yourself, know yourself. Yes, advice from other people is good. But ultimately, you need to learn about yourself and know yourself so intimately, that when you need something you know that you need, you don’t necessarily need someone to communicate it to you,” Alford said. “One thing my mother always told me was, ‘Know what you need to know so that you can do what you have to do.’ When you mess up as an adult, there’s not always going to be people to be there to support you and tell you what we need to do.”

“Gaining that knowledge about yourself and then also gaining the knowledge about your environment, will better equip you to not only deal with any issues or obstacles that you may face, but also so that you know where to go to get the tools that you need to do those things,” Alford continued. “So, self reliance, self centeredness – Not selfishness – But self centeredness and self knowledge. Also, knowing when to ask for help but not expecting the help to come to you immediately,”

In the midst of COVID, schools opening back up and Black women continuously being thrown into the “superwoman” narrative, the mental health of Black college-aged women at HBCUs is facing a daily struggle. Nevertheless, the work of organizations such as The AAKOMA Project and Black Women For Themselves are helping Black women gain back control in an incredibly chaotic time to be a student.