Lighting the Path: Empowering Student Mental Health Initiatives at HBCUs

With a renewed focus on student well-being, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are spearheading innovative mental health initiatives. UNCF (United Negro College Fund), in collaboration with its Institute For Capacity Building (ICB), has released a pivotal report, “From Awareness to Action: The Imperative for Enhanced Mental Health Support at HBCUs.” This report, unveiled during May—Mental Health Awareness Month, casts a spotlight on the mental health landscape across Black college campuses and sets the stage for a groundbreaking research release slated for Fall 2024.

HBCUs have long been bastions of support and resilience. These institutions have created sanctuaries for students during some of the most challenging times in higher education. “We’re proud to shine a light on the great work HBCUs are doing to support the mental and emotional well-being of their students while also calling for more robust resources, supports and systems that will enable these institutions to fulfill their student-centered missions,” said Julian Thompson, UNCF’s senior director of strategy development for ICB.

The mental health challenges faced by Black students are multifaceted and profound. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Black adults are more likely to experience serious mental health issues such as major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder.

Four years ago, in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNCF joined forces with HBCU leaders and national mental health organizations, including The Steve Fund and Active Minds. Their goal is to tackle these mental health challenges head-on. They facilitated various mental health conferences, webinars and awareness campaigns to engage thousands of Black college students, faculty and administrators in vital conversations about mental health.

David McGhee, CEO of The Steve Fund, commended the initiative and said, “From ‘Awareness to Action’ is an impactful document, outlining UNCF’s comprehensive suite of mental health initiatives which signal a major step forward in expanding mental health resources and supports for students at Black colleges.”

The newly released report draws five key insights from recent efforts to improve mental health on Black college campuses:

Universality of Mental Health Issues: HBCUs, like other higher education institutions, face significant mental health challenges.

Holistic Support Traditions: These institutions are deeply rooted in holistic, student-centered support traditions.

Culturally Responsive Safe Spaces: Creating culturally responsive environments is crucial for effectively connecting students with mental health resources.
Innovative Practices
: HBCUs are at the forefront of pioneering approaches that could reshape higher education’s response to mental health crises.

Future of Mental Health Activation: The next wave of mental health initiatives at Black colleges is imminent and promises transformative change.

Alison Malmon, executive director of Active Minds, emphasizes the unique mental health pressures Black students face, noting, “The pressure to succeed, combined with experiences of discrimination and historical trauma, can create a significant burden on mental health.” She adds, “That’s why we’re proud to partner with UNCF. Together, we’re working to develop culturally responsive resources and foster open conversations about mental well-being.”

The findings of this report will be prominently featured in the upcoming Unite 2024: UNCF Summit for Black Higher Education, scheduled for this July 28 to Aug. 1 in Atlanta. The event will host focus groups discussing the future of mental health at HBCUs. Additionally, later this year, UNCF, in partnership with the Healthy Minds Study, will release an unprecedented report on students’ mental health perceptions and attitudes at 19 Black colleges and universities.

This collaboration has led to the development of the first Healthy Minds Study module dedicated to students at HBCUs and other Black colleges, providing an unparalleled opportunity to understand the mental health needs of this unique student population.

Victoria Smith, strategy analyst, UNCF ICB, highlights the ongoing efforts, saying, “The efforts of Black colleges and universities to help their institutions respond to the pandemic has been truly inspiring. However, there’s still work to do.”

As this new era of mental health support dawns, HBCUs are not just rising to the occasion—they are setting the stage for a brighter, healthier future for Black students.

For more information and resources, visit UNCF’s mental health initiative website.