NCDHHS, HBCUS discussing mental health, debunking stigmas in the Black community

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) – The ongoing COVID pandemic has drastically changed people’s daily lives and mental wellbeing.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services held a mental health summit with multiple Historically Black Colleges and Universities on Wednesday.

The NCDHHS & HBCU Mental Health Summit “Peeling Back the Layers on Minority Behavioral Heath” discussed topics including signs and symptoms, counseling services, stigma, and grief.

Yvonne Copeland the Director for Division of Child and Family Well-Being says it is critical for the Black community to normalize conversations on mental health and wellness.

Staff members at Elizabeth City State University, Bennett College, and Fayetteville State University said they’ve noticed many students showing signs of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideas as they transitioned from isolation during 2020 and their return to in-person learning.

Aishia Griffin is the Director of Counseling Services for Bennett College. Bennett says she observed more students having anxiety and depression, experiencing grief after losing a family member to COVID, financial difficulties, acting as caregivers and providers for the family on top of school work, an increase in domestic violence, and sexual assault.

“Really what COVID has done in my opinion and view is it exacerbated all of that and really pushed everything out to the forefront,” Griffin said. She says they’ve noticed an uptick in students having suicide ideation and attempts.

Essence Winston is a junior at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte. She was a freshman when the pandemic started in 2020. She went from spending time with friends and classmates everyday on campus to learning remotely and alone in her hometown in California.

“Being isolated and feeling like you’re alone, feeling like you have nobody and not around other students – that was a really big struggle from but I got through it and I’m glad to be back,” Winston said.

State health leaders are encouraging students to utilize counseling and other support services on campus.

Many of the speakers at the summit said there needs to be more work done to remove the stigma of mental health and wellness that is common in the Black community.

JCSU student Kobe Livingston said talking about mental health was taboo in his household but he’s using his voice to normalize the topic.

“Growing up mental health was like ‘oh you’ll get over it, it’s not anything serious’ but sometimes for different people it is serious and I do advise people to go out and get help if you really need it,” Livingston said.

“If everybody can talk to you about the sugar their uncle has or that runs in the family we should be able to equally talk about the mental health conditions that they are treating and managing,” Copeland said. “It’s part of our everyday discussion no different than we are worried about or concerned about everyone else’s overall well-being.”

Winston says self-representation in the counseling department is more encouraging for students to express themselves.

“The first time coming to Smith was the first time I ever actually had a Black professor or a Black counselor so it was really eye opening for me to see people that look like me be able to guide us,” Winston said. She also encouraged HBCUs to have smaller personalized support groups for students.

Both students are hoping through more conversations like these: Black students will normalize mental wellness and bury the stigma preventing them from getting help.

“Do not be scared to express how you really feel. If you’re feeling sad let your feelings show, ”Livingston said.

JCSU has a counseling center on campus and provides workshops on a variety of topics. The counseling center also has self-help screenings to address and identify anxiety, depression, or other behaviors.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255. Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7, and confidential.

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