Say it Loud: I’m Black and I Worry About My Mental Health at my PWI
Art by Kirsten Hemrich
My first year at the University of Virginia was absolute shit. And that’s not an exaggeration. For every second of every day, I literally wished I was anywhere else but here.
Truthfully speaking, I could have had only myself to blame. I can be more on the introverted side, so maybe I just wasn’t putting myself out there enough. Or - maybe it was the University’s fault for not making out-of-state students like me feel more at home. Maybe the reason I didn’t fit into UVA was because I am black, and there is only a whopping 6% of us here on Grounds. As someone who didn’t have plenty of white friends back home, I found it hard being surrounded not just by white people, but by white people who had an entirely different upbringing than I did.
I didn’t know the exact reasoning behind it all, all I knew was that I was having the loneliest, most horrible first year of college I could have ever imagined. And if this was how college was supposed to be, then everything was a complete lie.
Everyone had already found their people and their place, and here I was just – not belonging.
I didn’t have anyone to talk to about how unbearable I thought this place was. Not a single soul. In the family that I come from, we don’t talk about things like mental health when God has already blessed you with the gift of life. It’s as if it doesn’t matter how you’re living – as long as you’re alive. e.
Well, I was alive. I was alive with barely any friends, a M.I.A. RA, and a hall full of happy little white girls who were too busy being happy little white girls for me to bother them. For most of my first year, I ended up staying in my room day and night with nowhere to go and absolutely no one to see. I didn’t know about group chats like “What’s The Move,” where you find out about gatherings and parties, so I missed out on events like “The Source,” and before I knew it I felt I had also missed my chance. Everyone had already found their people and their place and here I was just – not belonging. When I did finally leave my dorm, with every step I took, and just about every face I saw, I felt like an outsider.
To this day, I still don’t think I can call UVA home. But what other option did I have? I couldn’t afford to transfer. I was poor, and when you’re poor you do what you have to do and go to the school that promises you’ll leave a little less underprivileged than when you came in.
So I stuck it out.
I found real friends with whom I could have genuine conversations about what it’s like to not enjoy your time here at the University. And from these conversations, I began to notice a pattern: during our first year at UVA, all of us had never felt more alone, depressed, or anxious in our entire lives.
When asked what the University or the students who attend could do to make it better, many responded that UVA should focus on mental health awareness just as much as it does sexual assault.
As I spoke to my friends (who are mostly of African descent) I thought about how in our communities, we don’t traditionally discuss mental health. I then began to think about how many other minorities felt the same way we did and how many were remaining silent. Maybe students didn’t speak honestly about their feelings because they didn’t know how, and they just needed to practice.
I wondered how I was going to get the message out to UVA, to PWI’s across the country, and maybe even the world: the transition into predominantly white institution is affecting the mental health of African and African American students - as well as other students of color - and that matters. We matter, and this deserves to be a topic of conversation beyond us and our inner circles.
I wanted to express all of this and more, but first I had to collect my receipts.
So I made a survey. I put it in numerous group chats containing a high population of people of color and I asked students to respond honestly and anonymously about their first year at UVA. Of those who took the quiz:
- Most of them were in-state students.
- Most of them were of African descent.
- Most of them identify as female.
- 82% had increasing symptoms of anxiety/depression.
- 74% wish minorities had more safe spaces on Grounds to express how they feel.
- 71% felt frequently alone.
- 63% frequently felt like an outsider.
- 50% seriously considered transferring from UVA.
In a short response to “Describe Your First Year of UVA,” within the 38 responses, words relating to depression, sadness, and anxiety appeared 56 times. When asked what the University or the students who attend could do to make it better, many responded that UVA should focus on mental health awareness just as much as it does sexual assault. They also wished the University sponsored more public events helping minority students adjust to PWIs by coming to terms with and teaching us how navigate these white supremacist, capitalist, heteropatriarchy environments.
The experience at UVA for a Black American women is entirely different compared to that of a Black American man, and both of these experiences differ from a first-generation African American.
When I asked students where they would like to see more safe spaces for students of color implemented (areas where they can express their honest thoughts and opinions about what it’s like to attend a PWI) most of them said “everywhere.” Why must we retreat to small spaces in order to feel comfortable about who we are on Grounds?
Additionally, those who took the survey requested that the University discuss its intersectional tensions as well. The experience at UVA for a Black American women is entirely different compared to that of a Black American man, and both of these experiences differ from a first-generation African American. One response explained how, when we do decide to branch out and find an organization to be a part of at UVA, it seems as if we have to choose certain parts of ourselves to identify with. Where are the black LGBTQ+ support groups? What do you do if the people who look like you have more money than you, and you can’t afford all these fun trips and parties they’re planning?
Of course, I also asked if anyone’s experiences had gotten better since their first year at UVA, and while most say it has, others say they still lack genuine friendships and have to deal with most of their issues on their own. Some say it’s only gotten worse academically and socially, and they wish they weren’t here at all. Others state they’re literally counting down the days till graduation.
We are here to thrive. We are here to learn and grow in all aspects of our lives.
To everyone who took this survey, I want you to know that how you felt or what you’re currently feeling is ok. I want you to know that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you. Life gets shitty. Life as a black person at a PWI (one built off the cruel labor of our late brothers and sisters) most definitely gets shitty. But despite all the pain and loneliness you may be feeling I want you to know that you still matter. Body, mind and soul. I know how easy it is to feel so small at this school, but I assure you are not here at UVa to fill a quota. We are here to thrive. We are here to learn and grow in all aspects of our lives. And if the University will not provide that for us, you can be damn sure we’ll find a way claim it for ourselves.
No one likes to talk about their issues. No one wants to say “Hey I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing” or “Hey, I cried myself to sleep last night.” Those are hard things to admit to people and for some of us it goes against everything we were brought up knowing. But I think it’s necessary because I truly believe that no one in this world is alone. We are all connected in some way, shape or form. And we all have someone, someone, we can rely on. You do, too. We just have to be brave enough to find them.