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Investigating Mental Health Stigma in College Students

May 2, 2024

Since 1949, May has been designated as Mental Health Awareness Month—a time to destigmatize behavioral health conditions and bring attention to the necessary support of millions of Americans affected by mental illness. Data shows that mental health challenges continue to be a growing concern among college students, with students of color remaining an underserved and understudied group. In addition, while mental health worsened among all student groups during the COVID-19 pandemic, students of color were particularly vulnerable.

A new study by Nayoung Kim, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology and counseling, which sheds light on the relationship between race and mental health stigma. The findings could help college counseling and wellness professionals better understand students’ cultural experiences and the barriers they may face in seeking mental health treatment.

As seen in the Journal of College Student Mental Health, Kim’s study investigates how college students across different races perceive mental health treatment.

Kim and a researcher from Palo Alto University analyzed survey responses from 747 college students across the United States. Some responses were collected before the COVID-19 pandemic as part of an earlier study, while others were collected after the pandemic’s onset.

In both evaluations, students were asked to self-identify their race as Caucasian/White, African American/Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian/Asian American, American Indian/Native American, or Multiracial. The students then self-assessed statements regarding their perceptions on various mental health topics, with each statement having an individual scale (one to five, for example) correlating with whether they agreed or disagreed. Topics included:

  • Self-stigma: An individual’s negative attitudes toward themselves, and shame about mental health issues. Students reacted to statements like “I would feel inadequate if I went to a therapist for psychological help” and “It would make me feel inferior to ask a therapist for help.”
  • Public stigma: The perceived negative attitudes of others about mental health issues. Students responded to statements regarding whether others would “think of you in a less favorable way” and “think bad things of you” if they learned that the student was seeking mental health treatment.
  • Social support: Having other people, including friends and family, to turn to in times of need or crisis. Sample statements included “I get the emotional help and support I need from my family” and “I can count on my friends when things go wrong.”
  • Perceived discrimination: May take the form of microaggressions or environmental displays of prejudice and systemic racism. Students were presented with statements like “People act like you are not as smart” and “You are treated with less respect than others.”

The findings revealed that Asian/Asian American students had higher levels of self-stigma and public stigma compared to other groups, suggesting they may delay seeking help for mental health challenges. Given this, the researchers suggest that counselors offer these students a focused intervention to help address mental health issues promptly.

On a positive note, college students across all races who were enrolled during the pandemic showed decreased levels of self-stigma. This suggests that increased mental health awareness resulting from the pandemic reduced shame associated with seeking mental health treatment.

Given this, the researchers note that at the administrative level, it is essential to educate the campus community about stigma and potential psychological distress that can impact students’ well-being. Doing so could significantly impact whether students feel empowered to seek help.

“Our findings are particularly helpful for college counseling centers, which could benefit by tailoring counseling services to provide support for racial and ethnic minority students,” says Kim, who teaches graduate-level school counseling and mental health counseling courses.

“With a deeper understanding of students’ cultural experiences, college counselors can also facilitate group counseling sessions that delve into the complexities of mental health stigma and create a safe and inclusive space where students can express their perspectives, acquire effective coping strategies, and gain insights into the impact of that stigma.”