Many students find it difficult to identify symptoms and develop coping strategies, which makes diagnosing a challenge for mental-health professionals (Charles Deloye/Unsplash)
By Mark Gray
College is often seen as some of the best years of young people’s lives.
However, that changed in 2020 with COVID-19. The pandemic meant students struggled to balance personal anxiety and their college studies. Many were forced to return home after living on campus, and to take up their studies in virtual classrooms.
According to some researchers, the transition has been particularly difficult for students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, known as HBCUs.
“A survey of more than 5,000 students across 17 HBCUs found that many are dealing with difficulties, such as sick family members, trouble paying bills and general stress from the ongoing pandemic and recent protests against police brutality,” a report by Inside Higher Ed states. “The United Negro College Fund surveyed the students at its member institutions in June.”
“More than one-third of students said they have experienced declines in their mental health, due to the pandemic. Those students are three times more likely to consider transferring than those who have not experienced mental-health issues. Women were more likely than men to report declines in their mental well-being.”
One method of helping students, specifically people of color, was developed by Robert Adams, CEO of Delaware-based Advanced Healthcare Solutions in 2018. The TeleHelp 24/7 online therapeutic hotline launched a student-specific service in 2019.
The virtual service offers private counseling sessions that aim to help students “navigate through life’s challenges during their collegiate years.” His vision for addressing mental wellness involves using modern technology most familiar to the college-age generation.
“There are a lot of residual issues that need to address,” said Adams. “They need someone to meet them where they are.”
As a Virginia State University alumna, Candice Norris-Brown, a licensed clinical professional with TeleHelp 24/7, understands the stresses and benefits associated with being an HBCU student. These schools are often sanctuaries for students from difficult backgrounds.
“Conversations about mental health, especially depression, are typically taboo subjects in the African-American community,” said Norris-Brown, who has over 20 years’ experience in professional counseling. “Opening up and speaking about personal psychological issues has often been shunned by family members whose insensitivity adds to their burden.
“Our goal is to change the perception of mental health in the Black and Brown communities.”
Many students find it difficult to identify symptoms and develop coping strategies. The challenge for mental-health professionals is to find a comfort zone that gives them a safe place to talk.
“It’s important to have staff and counselors that look like us,” said TeleHelp 24/7 counselor Sherri Tull-Hubbard. “ help patients develop coping skills to help get through what life is all about.”
One of the barriers that has been removed is bonding with a mental-health professional who doesn’t understand the students’ societal pressures. TeleHelp 24/7 features African American therapists, and the counseling is confidential.
This virtual chat room, whose “sofa” is a smartphone, tablet or computer, offers clients a space that’s easily accessible to students.
“This is very beneficial because we are experts in modern technology,” said Virginia State student Addison Adams. “We can navigate these platforms better than generations of the past. It makes TeleHelp counseling more interactive and better for us.”
While most HBCU campuses remain on lockdown, TeleHelp is working with Paine College, an HBCU in Augusta, Georgia. It recently sponsored a “Talk It Out” forum via livestream.
For the past five years, this conference has provided students an opportunity to take part in forums featuring commentary from distinguished writers, producers, photographers, actors, directors and other media specialists. More recently, the collaboration with TeleHelp 24/7 shed light on mental health issues, especially in the African American community.
HBCU students from across the country were invited to join the conversation, an open format to ask questions and discuss concerns.
“One of the biggest concerns I have about our community is that we wait too long to seek help,” said Valerie Greene, a therapist who led the session with Norris-Brown. “There is a misconception that we must be in crisis in order to go to a mental-health provider. Just like our physical health, the same is true for our mental health.
“Early intervention is more effective and advantageous,” she said.