When Elizabeth James, program associate for the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, attended the University of Michigan for her undergraduate degree in the 1970s, she experienced an act of racism that seemed unthinkable to her: Someone vandalized her dorm room door with a racial slur.
“We had someone scrawl on our door when we first moved into our dormitory, and at that time it was just unbelievable,” James said. “We were really hurt.”
When nearly the same thing happened in West Quad Residence Hall this semester, James felt as if she were transported back to the ’70s.
“Some of the things just trigger me, in that they are very similar,” she said.
Since the semester started, more than 20 acts of explicit racism or bigotry have occurred on or near campus. Aside from the racist graffiti scrawled on a West Quad dorm room, racist posters have been found in several campus locations, a man defiled a “Black Lives Matter” chalk drawing on the Diag and anti-Latino sentiments were painted on the Rock.
James, who is also the faculty adviser for the University’s Black Student Union and National Council of Negro Women, said she was able to cope with racism while in school by finding comfort and support in her peers and friends. But James posited: How are today’s events affecting the mental health of targeted students?
“A lot of students are tired," James said. "A lot of students want results.”
When racism hits, it can negatively affect the mental health of students of color. Counseling and Psychological Services psychologist Sheryl Kelly said there are two typical reactions to experiencing racism, and both take a toll on a student’s health.
“It varies, depending on individuals,” Kelly said. “You have some people that have dealt with it for so long that they’re kind of saying, ‘Unfortunately, I’ve seen this before and some students that feel hopeless and helpless to finding a remedy to this situation. And I believe that latter one seems to be very prevalent on this campus. I think a lot of students are tired. A lot of students want results.”
Ebony McGee, a professor of diversity and urban schooling at Vanderbilt University, told Vanderbilt’s research blog her research proves these harmful effects are pervasive.
“Weathering the cumulative effects of living in a society characterized by white dominance and privilege produces a kind of physical and mental wear-and-tear that contributes to a host of psychological and physical ailments,” McGee said. “We have documented alarming occurrences of anxiety, stress, depression and thoughts of suicide, as well as a host of physical ailments like hair loss, diabetes and heart disease.”
Research on this topic has also been done at the University. A study from David Williams, a professor of sociology and epidemiology, further explains the link by analyzing several reports that discussed the connection between discrimination and mental health of LGBTQ individuals, Latinos, immigrant populations and Black people. All reports showed an increase in discrimination led to a decrease in mental health.
“(P)erceptions of racial discrimination were related to higher levels of psychological distress and lower levels of life satisfaction and happiness as well as with poorer physical health,” Williams’s report reads. “Everyday discrimination was significantly related to both measures of mental health status, independent of traditional measures of life events, chronic stress, and financial stress.”
“It’s very easy to think in this sort of cloud of nothing matters”
Minority students at the University understand this data firsthand. Some say they live it every day on campus.
LSA senior Akanksha Sahay is the president of Yoni Ki Baat, an organization of women of color on campus. In the weeks after last fall’s presidential election, she was afraid to walk around campus in her own skin.
“Muslim women were being attacked or assaulted,” Sahay said. “I don’t identify as Muslim, but because I have such visibly brown skin, I’ve been mistaken as Muslim in the past … being visibly brown felt like an invitation for some kind of violence.”
Although the majority of hate crimes on campus this semester have targeted the Black community, which Sahay also does not identify with, she said it’s impossible to stand by as a minority when other groups are being attacked. As a campus activist, she has been involved in the protests of the past month. She also struggles with depression, which she said makes dealing with these events so much more difficult.
“Obviously, there are some days where you just can’t get out of bed and that’s a part of being depressed, but when there are events like this on campus, it just seems like even more of a reason to not bother trying,” Sahay said. “It’s very easy to think in this sort of cloud of nothing matters and it’s easier to not feel anything than to feel upset all the time … (the campus climate) effects whether or not a day can go from ‘I can deal with these things because I know there are people on campus who have my back’ to ‘I need to stay at home because I can’t deal with anything right now.’”
LSA junior Timberlee Whiteus has also been active in the protests on campus. She said in an email interview, as a Black woman, the events of the past month have been disturbing but not surprising. After all, she’d experienced racism at the University before, in a chemistry classroom.
“I was once in a Chem lab and I had a partner who requested to change partners and would not work with me,” Whiteus wrote. “She went out of her way each lab to work with another group, in which I was forced to work alone (which didn't bother me) … I thought that the idea of someone not wanting to work with me was absurd, but I realized that there are many people I will encounter that will question my ability comprehend and function.”
“Students are not only concerned about potentially missing class … but it’s a safety issue”
While Whiteus did not let that event hurt her mental health — she said it actually made her stronger — the issue of students feeling unable to go to class because of depression or fears that their safety is at risk is a major worry of Esrold Nurse, assistant dean of academic affairs.
One of Nurse’s main responsibilities is to send emails to professors on behalf of students who need to miss class for whatever reason. Usually, he said, this is because of illness or the death of a family member. However, he also sends out emails on behalf of students who feel unable to go to class due to fears of racism or discrimination.
“We’ve always had situations, the way I see them, that affect students’ ability to perform, to do the things they came here to do, which is to get a degree and to be educated,” Nurse said. “My role as assistant dean is to ensure that students are able to do that without outside distractions or things that might happen. So this is in that vein. The recent incidences have clearly affected some of the students in a way that detracts from that mission of focusing on the work they have to do to get their degree.”
Nurse, a Black man, has been in his current position since 1995. The events of the last semester are not new to him, but they are still serious.
“This is really ratcheted up a level, because students are not only concerned about potentially missing class … but it’s a safety issue,” he said. “Whether this place is safe for me to walk around at night or during the day and so on. So to that extent, it’s really a big issue.”
The executive board of the Black Student Union, which did not respond to interview requests for this article, tweeted about Nurse’s service last week.
Nurse said he was glad the BSU publicized his service, though he did not ask them to do so. He just wants everyone to be able to feel safe and accepted on campus.
“I’ve sent quite a few (of these emails),” Nurse said. “I don’t have an exact number in mind, but … it’s not excessive. In that context, it’s part of the responsibility I feel I take personally … The least I can do is notify the instructor of the difficulties they’re having and I think that’s appropriate.”
“These organizations have opened their doors for dialogue and advice, and essentially have become a safe space.”
Coping with racism does not have a one-size-fits-all solution, though. While some students feel they need to stay home to focus on self-care, others like Whiteus are taking advantage of communities around campus.
“My outlet for dealing with these things is mainly connecting with my peers. … I talk with those who experience the same injustices I do and those who don't so they will know the ways in which their privilege can be beneficial,” she wrote. “I am on the E-Board for NAACP and I attend BSU meetings. Both of these organizations and the people in them are wonderful and they work hard to make the community one that is not only inclusive but safe. These organizations have opened their doors for dialogue and advice, and essentially have become a safe space.”
James also hailed the importance of safe spaces, saying a support system is crucial when someone’s identity is under attack. She helped organize mental health discussions in DAAS and also with the BSU, though she said both events were mostly student-led.
“In both places we talked about what do you do to relieve tension and pressure,” James said. “The things ranged from calling your parents to just talk with them about some stories they can share to give some inspiration and hope to people saying, ‘I go to a Dojo and take out the frustration,’ to other people saying they journal. There’s just a wide variety of possibilities and that was helpful, I think.”
CAPS has been important in helping Black students work through the racism on campus, too. The BSU organized an event with CAPS last Thursday to help raise awareness of their resources and talk about coping strategies. According to Kelly, CAPS is working to make itself available to students beyond its normal counseling services.
“I have gone to be a presence at protests,” she said. “I’ve gone to town halls. I’ve done specified outreaches so students know we are here. … That seems to provide some sense of comfort to students.”
Although she didn’t have exact numbers, Kelly also said there has been an increase in the number of students using CAPS’s services.
Another way students are coping with the frustration of the last month is by protesting. Groups have protested the C.C. Little Science Building and bus station on two occasions and many minority students and allies joined Dana Greene when he knelt on the Diag for nearly 24 hours.
A Black LSA sophomore who wished to remain anonymous because of her position as a diversity peer educator in U-M Housing said protests are how she channels her energy.
“It hasn’t gotten to the point where it’s been super jeopardizing in terms of being able to get up in the morning, but it definitely takes a toll on one mentally,” she said. “Protesting has been a way to relieve some of those emotions that I’ve been feeling. To just sort of express myself … It really helps to make a bolder statement that these issues are happening.”
Ultimately, every student has a different way of coping with the emotional toll of the issues. But the sophomore emphasized the most important thing is for any marginalized students is to remember why they’re at the University in the first place.
“After a while, I think we all sort of strive to look beyond what’s going on and think about our ultimate goal, which is to graduate,” she said. “All these little, little obstacles and stupid comments and incidents that are happening on campus are hurdles but we have to keep pushing forward and not let it get to us, in a way … ultimately, if you get so distracted by these events that you can’t study for a test and you fail, then they’ve done their job. So don’t let that happen.”