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Mario Starks

Handling Stress and Anxiety in College

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This article is written by David Rivera, Ph.D. and Deidra D. Dain, MBA of The Steve Fund and first appeared in the October 2018 edition of The Scholar Advocacy Newsletter.

Starting college is an exciting time. New relationships. Challenging academics. Significant doorways to life-long achievements. For many college freshmen, leaving home and starting college signifies an important family milestone—being the first to experience the opportunity.

All the excitement can often carry with it unforeseen feelings of stress and anxiety. And for college students of color, the feelings can be especially difficult to confront, navigate a path for support, and actually seek help. According to the Steve Fund, research reveals that students of color are (1) more likely to feel overwhelmed in college; and (2) more likely to keep their concerns to themselves (Harris Poll, JED, The Steve Fund. Understanding mental health challenges students face on today’s college campuses. Harris Poll, 2015). In fact, 50% of college students in the JED Foundation and the Steve Fund survey felt stressed “most” or “all” of the time.

What to do? Read more to learn about the issue and steps to take for a healthy transition into your college career.

What to Expect

A few facts from the annual Healthy Minds survey of college students reveal that Latinx students report higher levels of depression than Asian, Black, Multiracial or White students. In addition, those who identify as LGBTQ+ report higher levels of depression and anxiety. And overall, students of color receive care for their mental health needs much less often than their Caucasian counterparts.

But the problem is “less about not having insurance or money, and more about the psycho-social barriers that prevent people of color from seeking care,” says Dr. Alfiee M. Breland-Noble, Senior Scientific Advisor as quoted in an interview with Black Enterprise Magazine. Students of color may experience stigma in seeking mental health treatment due to cultural values conflicts and lack of therapists who look like them.  Further, Dr. Breland-Noble emphasizes the importance of gaining more awareness of what mental health is really about. “We need to raise awareness of what mental health looks like. Mental health is a spectrum–it’s not either you’re mentally healthy or you’re not,” she says.

What To Do

Knowing and anticipating the stress and anxiety that may arise is the first important step in learning how to cope. Feelings of distress can indeed be identified, addressed and personally managed—and don’t necessarily signal long-term suffering. As Dr. Annelle Primm, Medical Advisor for the Steve Fund explains, “risk factors are not predictive factors.”  There are things students of color can do to help themselves. And there are things colleges and universities can do to bolster their students’ emotional well-being.

Keeping track of mental health is the first step in effectively managing well-being.  This helps a person understand what their mental health baseline is and when stressors are negatively impacting functioning.  It might be helpful to keep track of mental health by incorporating “well-being checks” into one’s daily routine.  For example, regularly asking oneself questions like “How am I feeling today?” and “Did I encounter any significant challenges today?” can help students understand when they might need to proactively address their well-being.  Students can keep a record of their daily well-being checks by journaling their responses or keeping track in their daily planners.  Maintaining a record of these well-being checks can help a student identify compromises in well-being and indicate when extra support is needed.

Maintaining a balanced schedule that includes fixed time for sleep, meals, exercise, and leisure activities can help ward off the negative impact of daily stressors.  These activities, often taken for granted, are natural coping mechanisms and help people maintain a healthy balance, especially in the college years that are academically and socially demanding.  Students can also incorporate mindfulness strategies into their balanced schedule. Mindfulness strategies help people remain in touch with themselves by encouraging living in the moment and taking a judgment-free stance towards themselves and life in general.  Mindfulness techniques can be used anytime, anywhere.  Visit to learn how to develop mindfulness strategies that can benefit your life. 

Many students coming from different backgrounds, for example, find great strength in identifying positively with their specific ethnic or cultural groups. In fact, such identification has been linked with lower self-stigma for seeking mental health support (Cheng, Kwan, & Sevig, 2013) and lower depressive symptoms (Haslam et al., 2009; Hughes, Kiecolt, Keith, & Demo, 2015; Ida & Christie-Mizell, 2012). Finding peers and groups of peers from similar backgrounds can help lessen overwhelming feelings and provide support. Finding counseling services on campus and seeking professional can also help—and should be explored if mental health challenges reach levels of more serious concern for students. The main message here is connection and maintaining meaningful connections with family, friends, and a counselor if necessary.  Finding these sources of support in your life and taking a proactive stance in managing your well-being can help you get through the challenging experience of being a college student. 

The Community College Imperative: Designing Solutions to Promote the Mental Health of Students

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The Community College Imperative: Designing Solutions to Promote the Mental Health of Students

By Annelle B. Primm, M.D., MPH  Jan. 102019

Community college, an important gateway to social mobility, is becoming more accessible especially in several states which are establishing plans to permit students to attend tuition-free. Removing barriers and increasing opportunities for people to receive a community college education is a laudable goal that will help meet the demand for skilled workers in our economy. 

One important, yet often overlooked factor in successful community college experience is student mental health and well-being. While many community college students face mental health challenges, they often don’t seek help or help is not available. There is a significant need for support and services that could help students thrive academically, socially, and emotionally.

Public two-year community college students constitute nearly half of the 16 million students enrolled in college in the U.S. Nearly 50% of community college attendees are students of color and 36% are the first in their families to attend college, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

The 2016 report, Too Distressed to Learn, found that community college students are more likely than students in 4-year colleges to experience risk factors associated with mental health concerns such as food and housing insecurity. In fact, 50% of community college students have a current or recent mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression, which can have a negative impact on academic performance and graduation. Community college students of color experience additional challenges to their mental health associated with racial discrimination, xenophobia, and hate crimes which have become more common in a polarized national environment.

Community colleges are facing a challenge in the disconnect between the high need for mental health services among students and the limited services on most campuses. Counselor to student ratios at community colleges (1:3000) are nearly half that of 4-year colleges (1:1600).  As a result, 10% or less of community college students use on-campus mental health services compared to 50% of 4-year college students. Unmet mental health needs can have an adverse impact on overall health, relationships, economic status, and human potential.

The well-being of community college students took center stage at a recent Kaiser Permanente Community Health-sponsored convening in Oakland, California called, Mental Health and Well-Being by Design:  Leveraging and Scaling High Impact Solutions to Support Community College Students of Color and All At-Risk Students. This design initiative, led by the Steve Fund, a non-profit focused on the mental health and social and emotional development of young people of color, brought together community college administrators and students, mental health experts, and mental health technologists. Participants tackled the challenge of meeting the mental health needs of community college students and designed potential solutions.

Attendees heard from a racially and ethnically diverse panel of community college students who shared their experiences of overcoming challenges to their mental health. The takeaway message from the students was loud and clear:  solutions to the unmet mental health needs of community college students must include the use of peer support. Connecting with peers helps to remove the barrier of stigma usually associated with mental health help-seeking and provides a leadership role for people who have navigated the system and had their needs met. Peer connections may be especially important for men who are less likely than women to seek health and mental health services.

Indeed, emerging from the design process were several pilot projects which hinge upon face-to-face interactions with peer ambassadors and technology-enabled peer support. Other pilots included online screening to raise mental health awareness and online therapy to increase availability of and access to mental health services for community college students.

The anticipated implementation of these pilot projects provides hope that solutions responding to the mental health needs of community college students are within reach. Successful implementation of these pilots will require collaborative efforts including:  1) students who have the lived experience and know the realities of being in community college and balancing life challenges; 2) community college administrators who understand the boundaries, limits, capacities, and ecology of the community college landscape;  3) mental health professionals who understand the spectrum of mental health concerns among community college students and the extensive cultural diversity represented in that setting; 4) technology experts who can adapt innovative approaches to meet the mental health needs of community college students; 5) supporting organizations–the Steve Fund and Kaiser Permanente. Kaiser has been a leader in supporting innovative, upstream strategies to promote health and well-being in communities.

With community colleges being such an important stepping stone to work opportunities and economic independence, investments in solutions that attend to and maximize the mental health of community college students is a national priority which will ultimately yield a positive economic and social return.

Annelle B. Primm, M.D., MPH is currently senior medical adviser to the Steve Fund, and senior psychiatrist adviser to Hope Health Systems and several other organizations. During her career, Dr. Primm has been Deputy Medical Director of the American Psychiatric Association; Director of the Johns Hopkins Hospital Community Psychiatry Program; an editor of the books, Disparities in Psychiatric Careand Women in Psychiatry: Personal Perspectives; and a lecturer and video producer on the mental health of diverse and underserved populations.