The University Counselling Service buildingLouis Ashworth

This month, it emerged that black students at Cambridge are less likely to get Firsts than their white peers, while not one student who identified as ‘Black Caribbean’ scooped the top grade. While discussions springing from stats like this are commonly centred on educational background, there are other stories to be told by the figures. Black students are more likely to experience mental health problems at university – which can clearly prevent students from working to full capacity. How, then, can we better address black, and more widely, BME mental health?

“In communities that have been historically subject to hardship, narratives of strength and resilience can be powerful and pervasive”

We must acknowledge the social factors that play a role – isolation is widely acknowledged to be linked with mental health problems – so it’s not surprising that black people are at an increased risk. Cultural alienation from the wider community, and society, is undoubtedly a factor that takes its toll on wellbeing. Moreover, while the issue of stigma surrounding mental health problems and disclosure might sound a familiar one, discourses around mental health as a taboo rarely consider cultural and community factors that make disclosure far more difficult for ethnic minority students. Attitudes to mental health and seeking support are culturally relative, and in communities that have been historically subject to hardship, narratives of strength and resilience can be powerful and pervasive. As a result, black people, particularly, are more likely to only present in crisis and to be detained under the Mental Health Act, demonstrating an inability to seek support at the first signs of mental ill health.

When we talk about diversity in higher education, we often talk about representation at the level of admissions, curricula, and lecturers, but it’s easy to forget that it is also crucial within support structures and services – that is, our nurses, our officers, our tutors, our centres and our counsellors. Black people specifically report poorer experiences within mental health support services. We can also interpret increased levels of black detainment as a result of the misunderstanding of symptoms in their cultural context, with some professionals also attributing this to a stereotype of black people being dangerous. It seems it’s beginning to emerge that stereotypes like this play a role in the cause, the prognosis, and the treatment. And so it repeats.

“It’s high time we deconstructed the idea of the therapist’s couch as a neutral and apolitical space”

Moving to the example of counselling and therapy, it’s high time we deconstructed the idea of the therapist’s couch as a neutral and apolitical space. Whilst it’s easy to conceptualise counselling as a non-directive, non-judgemental system, characterised by open and balanced questioning, we must consider that what is considered ‘neutral’ works against a perceived cultural and racial norm. When BME clients enter into a therapeutic setting, or any support service or system where they must explain their innermost thoughts, feelings and experiences, the amount of time and emotional energy it takes to explain things quite tangibly takes longer. I was once asked in a support service setting whether my race was “really that significant” in contributing to my identity. The person was well-meaning, but as someone who wasn’t a person of colour, and had never experienced racism or being a minority, it took some explanation and justification on my part. And with that, an element of trust and confidence that I could be understood was lost.

Alongside this reasoning, we might see safe spaces popping up around the country as emerging from a need that is not being met. Safe spaces, by definition, are non-judgemental, confidential spaces where people can talk about personal feelings and issues that might be affecting their wellbeing. Sound familiar? Therapy similarly functions as a safe and confidential space, but black people are rarely well-represented within therapeutic settings, or wider support structures or services, and thus working through experiences of racism becomes harder. Alongside the aforementioned social and cultural isolation of BME people, safe spaces become the perfect remedy to being largely misunderstood.


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Black students, and, more widely, BME people, experience mental health differently. Our mental health problems are rooted in different systemic issues, the way we’re diagnosed and treated within services is different, and our satisfaction and outcomes are also different. We should look at ethnic minority people, and consider how society, and mental health support systems can diversify. We also need to consider how these systems can function to work against the racism and isolation in wider society that puts ethnic minorities at risk in the first place. We are more likely to struggle, and less likely to receive the support we need. With all this taken into account, alongside all other barriers that face BME students, perhaps the most surprising thing about the recent disparity in results is the fact that so many still seem to be shocked by it