Report highlights the mental health implications of colleges’ DEIB efforts

College students who face discrimination display higher levels of mental health distress than their peers who do not, according to a 2024 report from Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH). The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that the findings are especially relevant at a time when some states are demanding that public colleges and universities “dismantle identity-based centers and programs that were designed to support those students.” CCMH researchers say their findings reinforce the importance of institutional Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) initiatives, and call on leaders to address discrimination at the individual and systemic levels.

Impact of discrimination

After the 2020 murder of George Floyd, CCMH began to explore ways students can share their recent experiences with discrimination when they seek college counseling services. For the new report, CCHM researchers analyzed data from 85 university counseling centers serving more than 78,000 college students who sought mental health treatment from July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023. 

They found that, at the outset of their counseling services, nearly 20% of students said they had experienced discrimination or unfair treatment in the past six months based on one or more identities—disability, gender, nationality/country of origin, race/ethnicity/culture, religion, or sexual orientation. Almost 9% reported experiencing multiple (two or more) types of discrimination. 

Related: Mental health: Colleges train faculty, create student-centered policies to advance success >

Students who reported discrimination had increased levels of social isolation, general distress, and suicidal thoughts when they began to seek mental health treatment. Those symptoms were even greater among students who experienced multiple forms of discrimination.

Social media, the 2020 murder of George Floyd, and the 2023 Supreme Court decision ending race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions have caused students to be increasingly concerned about how society perceives their identity, Carlota Ocampo, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Trinity Washington University, tells The Chronicle of Higher Education. “When people are experiencing traumas, they can be exacerbated when those traumas are related to the essential identity of the way that a person presents in the world.”

Role of identity-based student supports

The researchers say their findings highlight the connection between students’ mental health and institutions’ approaches to DEIB. They emphasize that counseling is just one component in addressing students’ mental health.

Related: Access to college mental health services saves LGBTQ+ students’ lives, but barriers persist >

“Institutions and leaders who prioritize and value mental health and wellness must simultaneously support DEIB initiatives in order to reduce the disparities in mental health symptoms and treatment outcomes among students who face identity-based discrimination,” the report says.

Researchers hope that raising awareness about the association between discrimination and mental health will help college counseling services to offer more culturally affirmative support, better advocate for students and facilitate their self-advocacy, and address students’ experiences of discrimination at the individual and systemic levels.

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