The “Whiteness” of Mental Health

Mental health has long been a largely neglected topic within GDS. With the advent of groups such as LOVE and a resurfacing of criticisms over the lack of mental health education at GDS, the school is finally starting to devote attention to mental health awareness. However, the discussions surrounding this topic have failed to account for a significant portion of the study body. Students of color at GDS are further disadvantaged due to the added effects of stereotypes and problematic cultural norms that are often not understood by white peers and teachers. Therefore, as we begin thinking of ways to improve our mental health education at GDS, it is crucial that we understand, and take into consideration, the experiences and needs of students of color in particular.

The first and most significant aspect of mental health is diagnosis. Traditional symptoms of mental illness are diagnosed in white students far more often than students of color. According to a 2016 study, rates of diagnosis for depression and anxiety were significantly lower among racial and ethnic minorities compared to non-Hispanic white patients. As senior Asha Klass puts it, “symptoms of mental health traditionally present themselves in ways that educators stereotype as normal behaviors for that community or that identity.” For example, if a black student has ADHD, it is far more likely that that student will be punished for their actions before that same behavior is attributed to a treatable disorder.

Cultural norms within communities of color also present increased barriers for people of color in regards to recognizing mental illness. For children of immigrant families, especially Latino and Asian families, immigration quotas and norms that are carried-over from their previous homes are likely to heavily influence their experiences. Primarily, they are often discouraged from expressing concerns over their own mental wellbeing in order to adhere to cultural norms of maintaining an idealized image of family coherence. Immigrant parents often stress that they’re lucky to be in America in the first place and thus can make it very difficult for their children to come to terms with their own mental illnesses even at privileged institutions such as GDS. Furthermore, Klass notes that, “school pressures are often increased for children of immigrants.” Thus, since it is not experienced in the same way by white students and not understood as well by white educators, detrimental behaviors that might result from these increased pressures are often accepted without question.

Aside from stereotypes, blatant and institutionalized racism is also a significant contributor to stress and a precursor to different forms of mental illness. According to a conclusion of a study done by the National Institutes of Health, racism is not just an added stress to individuals of racial minority groups, but is a pathogen which generates depression. Living in a majority white neighborhood, junior Max Cowan cites his experiences of having to be extremely cautious and feeling like an outsider when walking his dog around his neighborhood as an additional stressor on his own life and something that many of his white classmates will never have to experience. Racism breeds mental illness while the institutionalized and cultural side of racism prevents treatment; or in other words, mental illness in people of color is more likely to be caused and harder to be treated.

The development of a comprehensive system of mental health that specifically acknowledges and helps to break down added barriers for students of color is therefore incredibly necessary. According to Cowan, “people at GDS need to be educated on truly how harmful racism and its effects can be on students of color. This then needs to be applied to mental health curricula because it has to go hand in hand, it can’t be separated.”

By Joyce Yang’19