Since moving to remote instruction Cornell Health's mental health services have been made available through telehealth, but these services are only part of the response to the mental health needs of Cornell's Black community.

Emma Hoarty / Sun File Photo

Since moving to remote instruction Cornell Health's mental health services have been made available through telehealth, but these services are only part of the response to the mental health needs of Cornell's Black community.

June 25, 2020

Mental Health for Black Cornell Students Requires Not Just Therapy, but Policy Change

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The day to day experience of racism exacerbates mental health concerns for many Black people in the United States, including on Cornell University’s Ithaca campus.

Both Dr. Jacque Tara Washington, LCSW-R, Doctor of Social Work and Cornell Health clinician, and multiple Cornell students expressed a desire for systematic change to create a welcoming environment for Black student wellness. These changes include greater Black and brown representation among students, Cornell Health clinicians and faculty. Only 5.7% of academic professionals and post-doctoral students at Cornell University are underrepresented minorities.

“I want to be very clear: being of Black and brown descent is a beautiful reality; that is not the burden!” wrote Washington in an email to The Sun. “The burden is in the reality that people in these populations are consistently met with all forms of racist systems and behaviors that they must manage.”

The burden is in the reality that people in these populations are consistently met with all forms of racist systems and behaviors that they must manage.”
— Dr. Washington

Washington is particularly concerned about the wellbeing of Black students who are coping with pre-existing mental health concerns in addition to the burden of racism. According to Washington, the trauma of racism may increase the severity of anxiety, depression, and isolation for Black and brown students.

In addition to struggling with mental health due to the stress of systemic racism, some Black and brown students are working through the stigma attached to seeking mental health assistance.

“I would think ‘I’ve been through systemic racism,’ ‘I’ve been through health inequity,’ ‘I’ve been through classism.’ I put my mental health on the back burner thinking I was stronger than other people,” Lauren Palmiter ’23 said. “There is a stigma in the Black community about seeking out mental health services, that it is a sign of weakness, and growing up, I was one of those people.”

Palmiter is a double major in psychology and American studies. To create an environment more conducive to mental wellness for Black and brown students, Palmiter hopes for more diverse hiring and admissions at Cornell.

“Most of my professors and classmates are white. Some are Black and brown, but it is very upsetting to not have many Black and Latina role models on campus. That was upsetting for me, because I thought that would be better at a liberal university, but it isn’t,” said Palmiter.

Abena Gyasi ’22, a double major in biology and society and psychology who works in the Social Perception and Intergroup Inequality Lab, agrees with Palmiter that Cornell’s lack of a large Black and brown population can be alienating. Gyasi has found microaggressions from her non-Black and brown peers to be a consistent source of stress.

“We struggle with the same things as other Cornell students, like classes, but also deal with microaggressions and racially charged comments that other students don’t have to deal with,” Gyasi said.

We struggle with the same things as other Cornell students, like classes, but also deal with microaggressions and racially charged comments that other students don’t have to deal with.”

Gyasi hopes that Cornell’s administration works to make a more welcoming environment for Black and brown students’ mental health by listening to their concerns. One way that some Black and brown students at Cornell have made their concerns known is through the recent Do Better Cornell petition, which calls for the firing of Dr. David Collum and suggests the establishment of a Cornell University Police Department Oversight Committee hosted in the Anti-Racist Institute.

“Cornell could listen to students. Sometimes, students of color feel we are just used for diversity,” Gyasi said.

To take care of their own wellness, Washington recommended that Black students connect with people who share their emotions and realities for support, maintain a healthy self-care routine, connect with spirituality in a way that works for them and try to make a positive difference.

In order to make Cornell’s diverse community feel comfortable seeking mental health assistance, Washington sees room for changes in Cornell Health itself, including improvements in the provision of culturally competent care as well as better representation among clinicians and management.

“We need more therapists who represent the Black and brown populations, as well as administrative and leadership representation from those populations,” wrote Washington. “The system must be accountable to make systemic changes that benefit and welcome potential Black and brown clients.”

Caroline Johnson ’22 contributed reporting.