Nearly 50 students gathered in William L. Harkness Hall to discuss the relationship between race and mental health Tuesday night.
Mind Matters, a group that aims to raise awareness of mental health issues on campus, organized the panel to address how stigma varies across different racial, religious and socioeconomic communities. Five students shared their experiences with anxiety, depression and other mental health problems, focusing on the ways that their cultural identity affected how and where they sought help. At the beginning of the event, Mind Matters presidents Sreeja Kodali ’18 and Audrey Luo ’17 told the audience that they hoped the event would prompt further dialogue about experiences with mental health and encourage peer support.
“We want people to be mindful of the voices that aren’t here today,” Kodali said. “There’s no clear-cut, right way to experience the intersection of race and mental health — all of these stories are true and all of them are valid.”
In sharing their personal experiences, all of the student speakers mentioned stigmas within their communities that initially prevented them from seeking help. Many expressed that they did not have the language to articulate how they were feeling, and some spoke of family members who displayed ignorance or hostility.
One of the panelists, a senior and an international student from Pakistan who asked to remain anonymous, mentioned that she had little knowledge of the lived experiences of mental illness when she came to Yale. After a panic attack during a midterm last year, she did not understand what had happened.
The panelist added that her Muslim identity made seeking professional help difficult. In her culture, she said, everyday problems are often dealt with through prayers, and mental health is not a familiar term. When she returned to Pakistan, she found very few resources as a result of cultural stigmas surrounding mental illness and had only limited conversations with her parents about her anxiety and depression.
“My faith still helps me put a lot of things into perspective, but I do know now when to ask for help from someone other than God,” the student said. “It’s very hard to find that threshold where faith does not work anymore and you have to ask other people for help.”
Fellow panelist Sadé Kammen ’19 said the racial protests at Yale in fall 2015 were detrimental to her mental well-being, adding that she often felt the “burden of awareness” and pressure to be a representative of the black, female and LGBTQ communities. Comments about race continually affect her mental health and ability to get help, Kammen said.
Magdaleno Mora ’17, another panelist, said the ideals of masculinity in the Latino community made him uncomfortable verbalizing his depression to family members. However, when Mora identified a Yale professor with a shared cultural background “who understood what it’s like to be Latino and depressed,” he found a renewed sense of hope.
When asked how peers can better support students of color who struggle with mental health problems, Mora encouraged attendees to listen with an open mind. Kammen added that she often looks to friends for emotional support but does not expect them to serve as secondary therapists. Several panelists highlighted the importance of seeking professional help and recommended students take advantage of the University’s mental health resources.
Panelist Marisa Moraza ’17 told the News that MHC offers various options, including one-on-one sessions and group therapy, that she has found useful. However, she noted that scheduling appointments can be an intimidating and time-consuming process. Moraza described her first encounter with an MHC therapist as uncomfortable and unhelpful, which prompted her to stop using the center’s resources. She only returned to MHC one year later, after she was matched with another professional with whom she was better able to connect.
Moraza also pointed to other important figures that students can turn to outside of MHC, such as residential college deans and cultural center directors. These people can provide students with a comfortable setting in which to discuss their experiences, and they may also help students connect with professional mental health resources, Moraza said. She added that her own college dean helped her initiate contact with MHC.
“For anyone who’s going through a stressful time, I would just tell them that they’re not alone and there’s no reason to lose faith,” Mora said. “Sometimes it is hard, but you should never look at life in the binary. There’s no such thing as pure success and pure failure — there will be little hiccups along the way.”
The panel’s focus on intersectionality allowed marginalized students to know that someone “understands what they are going through,” attendee Tori Bentley ’17 said.
Mind Matters originally planned to host the event in the fall in response to conversations about race on campus a year and a half ago. However, the group wanted “as diverse a panel as possible,” according to Kodali, so recruiting proved to be the limiting factor. Kodali and Luo reached out to the cultural centers, residential college deans and other students to identify panelists.
Mind Matters plans to hold a panel discussion on eating disorders later this spring.