←Return to Homepage

Mental health and race

February 2018

This story is part two of a series for Voices. See part one here

"Discrimination makes you tired. It makes you feel isolated. It makes you feel frustrated and it's a lot of pain," said Malik Burton, the president of the Black Student Alliance at Iowa State.

For the 4,290 Iowa State students who identify as a person of color, these feelings may be constants that the 28,736 white students can't relate to in the same ways. 

The stress of being an underrepresented student on a predominately white campus can be difficult and can attribute to some serious mental health issues. 


For Mehul Shinde, current president of the Indian Students' Association and former president of the International Students' Council at Iowa State, this stress hit him during his first few days on campus in 2015. 

"During orientation, I was left all alone and it was sort of a setback for me," said Shinde. "Just knowing that I would have to start all over again and I couldn't even remember how to make friends."

He said that everything in his social life worked out — he was able to connect to people and make and keep friends, but that wouldn't be the last time that he would feel excluded on campus. 


"The biggest sort of discrimination I've faced is in employment," he said. Shinde has experience working as a research assistant, a lab intern and a software developer, but has still struggled to find a summer internship as a junior engineering major. 

"The first question that [companies] asked me after seeing my resume was if I would need sponsorship for my visa if I started full time. When I said yes, most of them said they didn't do sponsorships."

He said that it was difficult and stressful seeing people who had less experience than him getting the internships or jobs that he wanted purely based on his need for sponsorship.

The stress experienced from being discriminated against is a major factor in someone's mental health, according to the minority stress model, discussed by Dr. Carolyn Cutrona in part one of this series. 

Burton talked about the discrimination he has faced, whether that be being followed around a store because the employees thought he might steal something, being pulled over for making an "illegal turn" or because his headlights were too dim and even being called on in class to answer questions about race. 

"All that takes a toll, especially if you grew up around people that had the same identity as you and then you come somewhere where there's not very many people like you," Burton said. 

Misdiagnosis and vicarious trauma

In addition to the stress of discrimination, misdiagnosis by mental health professionals also attributes to mental health issues among African and African American communities. 

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, African American women are more likely to describe their mental illness in physical symptoms such as bodily aches or pains, which some doctors may not recognize as mental illness symptoms. In addition, African American men are more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia when in reality they may be experiencing PTSD or vicarious trauma. 

"[Vicarious trauma is] when you see a black person being killed by the police every single day, that's a mental health aspect because then you have paranoia, you don't trust the police, you are afraid to go outside because you can literally see yourself in that situation," Burton said. 

Healthcare issues

Because of the rarity of vicarious trauma in other races, Burton emphasized the need for more diverse healthcare providers who won't overlook or misdiagnose these issues because they may have experienced them theirselves. 

The lack of diverse healthcare providers in addition to the cost of treatment is a deterrent for families to seek mental illness help, said Burton. Because of this, African American families may turn to other routes of treatment such as religion or simply waiting for the issue to pass — if they acknowledge the problem at all. 

Believability from family

"It's sort of a taboo topic," he said. "A lot of black families believe that mental health is a symptom of something else or a product of another physical illness."

For Latinx families, the issue of believability is prevalent as well, said Julissa Garcia, a member of Theta Lambda Alpha, a Latinx sorority on campus. 

"Latinx families focus more on the physical than the mental," Garcia said. "A lot of families have superstitious remedies that are usually used to help physical issues, so when it comes to mental problems, it's difficult for them to talk about it because they don't have any answers."

When she faced her own family with her anxiety issues, Garcia said it was difficult for them to take it seriously until they saw signs of the issue and learned more about it. She said that her dad's initial reaction was that it wasn't a problem and that medication would take care of it, but that's not what Garcia wanted to do, so she started to work on educating her family on mental health.

Issues in male mental health

In the Latinx community, those who have the hardest time understanding or empathizing with mental health issues are older generations and males. 

Older generations "have more traditional mindsets and it's frustrating because you can teach, teach, teach, but it's up to that person to understand and actually think it's important," said Garcia. 

She said that providing care for others is seen as a woman's job in Latinx families and for males, having a quality of machismo, or hyper masculinity as Garcia described it, is very important.

"They may believe that mental illness is a weakness and they don't want to share that with other people," she said. "You want to show people that you're strong, you're tough, you don't have any emotions — you don't want anything feminine related back to you."

The stress of needing to be strong at all times can not only keep Latinx men from believing in other’s mental illnesses, it can also keep them from seeking help for their own mental health, which can make illnesses worse. 

In the general population, men are 3.53 times more likely to die from suicide than women, although prevalence in diagnosed mental health issues is higher in women. This suggests that although men are experiencing mental health issues, they aren't seeking help for them. 

Garcia said that this, along with economic and immigration problems are the main stressors for Latinx families and individuals. 

What can change at Iowa State

Shinde pushes for a more diverse student population on campus.

"Our campus is far from being diverse," Shinde said. "Both local students are missing out because they aren't experiencing as much international exposure and the international students are suffering because a lot of them are isolated from the main stream."

Burton pushes for more culturally aware counselors and more resources on campus.

"Getting mental help is like a job process — they can get to know you on paper, but that interview is where you get to see the rest of who they are," Burton said. "We also need more diverse mental health staff and to expand the staff in general. Adding resources specifically for minorities and advertising those resources would make it less of a taboo topic."

Garcia pushes for more diverse counselors and teachers on campus.

"[More people of color in these positions] doesn't mean that a person can't identify with a person of color if they're not a person of color, but I believe it's easier to connect because you kind of know the struggles that you've faced between each other and it doesn't need to be said — you just look at each other and you just kind of know," Garcia said.

Submission Form
←Return to Homepage