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A Black student sits on the stairs looking distraught surrounded by peers.

Students who have faced discrimination, especially related to multiple identities, are more likely than their peers to feel socially isolated.

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College students who face discrimination are more likely than their peers to report high levels of social isolation, suicidal ideation and general distress to their counselors, according to a new report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State University. Those rates are even higher for students who experience multiple kinds of discrimination—say, both racism and sexism.

And while students who have experienced discrimination see their mental health symptoms improve in counseling at a rate similar to other students, they still leave therapy with higher overall rates of distress, isolation and suicidal ideation than their peers, the report found.

In all, about one-fifth of students who attended a college counseling session starting in the 2021–22 and 2022–23 academic years reported that they had experienced discrimination within the past six months due to their disability, gender, nationality/country of origin, race/ethnicity/culture, religion and/or sexual orientation.

Other key findings (which, unlike the findings on discrimination, only draw on data from 2022–23) from this year’s report include:

  • The share of students who had previously received counseling or taken psychotropic medication reached all-time highs, of 61.1 percent and 37.5 percent respectively.
  • Prior counseling was also the mental health history item that has increased in prevalence the most over the past 11 years, rising from 47.8 percent in 2012 to 61.1 percent in 2023.
  • Social anxiety is the mental health symptom that has increased the most over the past 13 years.
  • Of the symptoms that skyrocketed after the onset of COVID-19, only one, academic distress, has subsequently decreased; the others—including social anxiety and family distress—have all increased or remained the same.

The report highlights the connection between discrimination and trauma. Discrimination on the basis of race has long been thought to have a psychological impact akin to that caused by other acute forms of trauma; researcher Robert Carter first coined the term “race-based traumatic stress” to describe the phenomenon in 2007. But the issue is not often discussed on college campuses.

“This was a way to raise awareness among clinicians that this experience might be occurring more than is being discussed in the counseling session,” said Brett Scofield, executive director of the CCMH. “Our findings really underscore the critical need to gather information related to identity-based discrimination at the beginning of treatment.”

Discrimination, the report stresses, is not a mental health problem but rather a social one that can significantly impact students’ mental health. However, “awareness of these experiences [is] critical to help better understand their clients in context, provide more support services that are aligned with their needs, and identify any adjunctive services within the university that are [diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging]–informed and can help support the student,” it reads.

Changing the Conversation

The center began collecting data on discrimination after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers catalyzed nationwide conversations about systemic racism, police violence and racial trauma. During that time, the CCMH realized its existing infrastructure for collecting data on discrimination was insufficient, Scofield said. Therapists might record when students reported discrimination, but they typically never asked about it directly in the same way they inquired about other risk factors that could impact mental health, such as prior trauma or treatment for substance misuse.

CCMH’s findings, gleaned from 78,432 students across 85 college counseling centers, indicate that discrimination—especially for students who have experienced discrimination for multiple different identities—is a strong risk factor for mental health symptoms. In fact, having experienced two or more types of discrimination is the second-highest risk factor for social isolation; only previous suicide attempts are a bigger risk.

Adrian Bravo, an assistant professor of psychology at the College of William & Mary, has published research on the psychological impact of perceived discrimination on students at 11 universities. CCMH’s data align with the results of his 2021 study, which also looked at factors such as who had discriminated against the student.

CCMH’s report is “a great resource and a great line of research because it illuminates the grand scope of how problematic this is nationwide,” Bravo said. “There are so many [students] that don’t even go [to counseling] or don’t feel like reporting these things or are just struggling on their own … so unfortunately these numbers might be conservative.”

He also noted the value in universities having data on how often their students report facing discrimination and its correlation with their mental health. A pattern of students presenting with race-based traumatic stress could be an important indicator of a systemic issue on campus.

“If those universities have that mission to care for their students, then their mental health and their stress need to be critical to that,” he said.

Zainab Okolo, senior vice president of policy, advocacy and government relations at The Jed Foundation (JED), said that CCMH’s report shows how important it is for counseling center clinicians to be adequately prepared and trained to have potentially uncomfortable conversations about race and discrimination with students.

But she also noted that a counseling session alone cannot fix discrimination or heal a student’s trauma.

“Like any trauma, [race-based traumatic stress] first must be treated and addressed directly, and oftentimes, especially when treating trauma, the first step is limiting exposure. But the insidious challenge with RBTS and other types of trauma related to discrimination is that the presenting trigger is impossible to get away from,” she said.

“This is a shared work. I’m a big believer that college counselors and counselors in general have a very pivotal role in ensuring students have their mental health and wellness needs addressed,” she said. “But in the absence of addressing the overall culture on campus, we’re putting a lot more onus on one area of help or support when this needs to be the focus of the campus experience as a whole.”

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