Every fall the gradual change in the weather brings together alumni and students to celebrate homecoming at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Throughout the weekend individuals attend concerts, step shows, prayer services and fundraisers to continue a tradition that has existed since the institutions inception. The annual event is a showcase that culminates with historic rivals battling on the gridiron to determine which campus has bragging rights for another year. This year homecoming could offer members of the campus community the opportunity to discuss the importance of mental health, particularly among Black men. Mental health is a taboo subject that is rarely discussed among Black men. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) Black men are more likely than Non-Hispanic White men to struggle with hopelessness, sadness, worthlessness and the feeling that everything is an effort. Moreover, they are hesitant to seek treatment because of a general mistrust of the health care system. Changing the narrative will require honest conversations with old school and new school alumni and students to ensure Black males don’t feel isolated. Fortunately advocates, mental health practitioners, post-secondary institutions and researchers are taking steps to ensure Black males have access to comprehensive support services.
Recently The Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions sponsored a Twitter chat titled “Mental Health Awareness at HBCUs” (Storify for the chat available here). The discussion examined a variety of topics including stigmas associated with mental health among Black males. The chat provided a platform for advocates to discuss obstacles Black males encounter and specific steps HBCUs can take to combat stereotypes. Ensuring students understand that people with mental illness are not “insane” or “weak” is linked to increasing Black male treatment rates. Mental health advocates including Rwenshaun Miller, founder of Monumental-Monomental, a website that chronicles his experiences with mental illness is countering the narrative. Mr. Miller takes time to openly discuss important issues while challenging the Black community to confront cultural norms.
Engaging Black males in a discussion about mental health is important considering the nation’s history of discrimination. HBCUs have the opportunity to sponsor panel discussions, provide educational materials and access to mental health counselors during homecoming. Inviting alumni and students to have an open dialogue is consistent with HBCUs focus on communalism. Institutions should consider adopting the adage, “Am I My Brother’s Keeper.” The phrase is rooted in principles that would challenge Black males to consider how to help classmates. Homecoming represents a rare opportunity to talk to males from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds.
Encouraging males to discuss mental illness is the first step to combating this issue. It is also important to recognize that Black males are not a monolithic group. Institutions have to consider how issues relating to sexual orientation, gender expression and identity intersect at HBCUs. In addition, Black women encounter barriers that require further research, discussion. HBCUs have to be prepared to provide comprehensive services by dedicating resources to counseling centers, residence life and collaborating with alumni organizations. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to an important issue while hundreds of alumni descend on to HBCUs campuses to attend the annual step show. In addition, state and federal agencies have to be committed to funding innovative programs designed specifically for Black males.
HBCUs can apply for funding through organizations including the HBCU Center for Excellence in Behavioral Health at Morehouse’s School of Medicine. The center provides grants and webinars for HBCUs. Funding successful programs is the key to continuing the dialogue on mental health. Some HBCUs have created programs that could be adopted at other institutions. Overall institutions should consider implementing the following:
- Creating support groups for Black males
- Working with off campus organizations to increase outreach efforts
- Providing professional development opportunities for administrators, faculty and staff
- Developing an online portal focused on mental health
- Developing or increasing funding to wellness centers
Ensuring HBCUs are equipped to combat stereotypes is critical. Homecoming offers a great opportunity to discuss this important topic. Mental illness is an issue that receives scant attention within the Black community. Far too often, Black males suffer in silence because of stigmas associated with mental illness. Encouraging Black males to seek support could inspire students to develop programs and support groups. HBCUs should collaborate with alumni and students throughout the year to provide vital mental health services. Institutions can no longer afford to ignore this critical issue. Taking a proactive approach to mental health is important considering it’s long-term impact on minority, underserved populations.