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Source: HBCU Week Foundation assets / HBCU Week Foundation

The conversation around mental health in the Black community has been progressing in recent years but there is still a long way to go. 

Life circumstances such as social expectations, financial challenges, and systemic racial biases are still putting an immense amount of pressure on Black adults. 

Students at HBCUs are no different. And even through all the basic life challenges they still have to worry about getting assignments in on time. 

There’s a need for relief that will help create fully healthy and whole students. And this is where global companies can come in to try to help.

For the second straight year, McDonald’s is awarding $500K to 35 HBCU students as part of the McDonald’s Black and Positively Golden Scholarship Program in partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

The impact of financial strain on HBCU students is one of the main stressors that can lead to a deterioration in a student’s mental health. The pressure of coming up with the dollars to try to advance your education can be a significant catalyst to mental health issues. 

Yet, not only is McDonald’s giving out money but they are also partnering with minority-owned self-care app, Shine, to provide lifetime app memberships and an additional lifetime membership for a friend. They will also provide one-year memberships to all of the 1,400 scholarship applicants. 

Sylonna Johnson is a first-year student at Hampton University from the Los Angeles, California area and she believes that the impact of this scholarship has helped her tremendously. 

“The financial stress that is relieved from me, obviously this has put a very nice dent into my tuition balance,” said Johnson. “But also just with the Shine app and being able to talk to people … it generally helped me personally and gave me new insight into things I didn’t know before. And also just seeing the other scholarship recipients, it kind of gave me a new light into just how small the world is and you never knew who’s around the corner to help.” 

McDonald’s found in a survey that 3 in 4 Black college students are dealing with symptoms of anxiety and depression. While the money is great and necessary to relieve the pressure that many students feel, having the ability to talk to professionals about their mental health is just as crucial. 

“I think specifically HBCUs are important because they essentially are the universities that bring forward the most Black graduates. So I think it’s an important group of universities to focus on because they are essentially creating our future in the workforce,” said Dr. Jessica Clemons, a well renowned Board-Certified Psychiatrist who also graduated from Tuskegee University. “Students, if they have the proper financial support along with those mental health resources, then they will continue to excel.” 

Many HBCUs have done a great job of adjusting to the times and allocating resources to cater to students’ mental health. They’ve created wellness days for students where they can take a break from work and they’ve positioned mental health professionals on their campus to treat the needs of these students. However, there is always more work to be done to make sure every student has an opportunity to excel as a fully functioning individual. Through more partnerships like the one with McDonald’s and Thurgood Marshall College, the HBCU community can continue to improve and continue to close the gap. 

“HBCU students just have a very unique experience, As rich as the experience can be with education and just the culture of attending an HBCU and the bonds that are formed that are very deep. There is often a lot of issues around resources,” said Clemons. “The student health center should incorporate or have available counseling services and also beyond that if people need longer-term treatment [they] should have access to psychiatry… just making it a normal part of their experience like having a wellness day really centering that this is a time where you are focusing on taking care of yourself. But also really encouraging students to where they can just connect and talk; it doesn’t always have to be about seeing a therapist.” 

There is a different level of stress and scrutiny that exists as an HBCU student because of the racial biases that exist in this country. HBCU students for years have often been viewed as inferior, so the need to overcompensate and prove oneself has been a mindset that has been both prosperous and damaging to students as well. 

“As Black students at HBCUs we all have this pressure because we all want to prove ourselves because there are such stigmas that HBCU educations aren’t going to be as beneficial to you as a PWI one,” said Johnson, who is a first-generation college student as well. “ I get that everyone wants to be great and everyone wants to be perfect but the idea of perfection personally to me has just always been a damaging idea.”

Johnson has learned through her matriculation to allow herself grace and accept herself even despite her mistakes. This philosophy has helped her grow immensely. 

“I allow myself breaks. I remind myself that I am human and I tend to remind myself that I’m not perfect and I won’t be perfect because perfection doesn’t really exist,” said Johnson. “I try not to be too hard on myself for certain things I let myself know everything is not going to be an A+ and I allow myself room for mistakes because I feel like if I allow myself room for mistakes when I do make a mistake it doesn’t weigh such a huge burden on me and it doesn’t affect me negatively because I allowed myself room for that.” 

The mental health discussion in the Black community is continuing to evolve and the investment of resources in it should be continuing to increase. The livelihoods of many young people are at stake and the expertise from professionals can make a difference in someone’s life even if it doesn’t involve traditional therapy. 

“I often talk about things like self-care, making sure that you are taking care of yourself in terms of adequate rest, making sure you are eating a balanced diet, and staying connected to people in a very genuine way,” said Clemons. “Those can be things that can help people maintain where they are but then obviously if you need support just seek it, it’s available and you should access it if you can.”

The benefits of investing in these lives are evident. We can further create an ecosystem at HBCUs that allows these young people to become fully healthy adults if the resources are dedicated to it. 

“I’m a lot more confident, I’m a lot more at ease, I’m a lot more at peace. I truly feel like I am a different person,” said Johnson. “I’ve changed for the best and I have nothing to thank but therapy and all the mental health opportunities I’ve had along this journey. “

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