A manifesto for Black mental health should matter to HE

A new Black-led coalition sets out the action needed to improve the mental health of Black people. Ruqia Osman sets out its relevance to universities

Ruqia Osman is Racial Justice & Equity Manager at Rethink Mental Illness

Black students have lower attainment rates compared to white students.

They also have lower progression rates, lower completion rates and lower continuation rates compared to white students.

The statistics are all there in the OfS annual review from 2023..

In the years following the tragic murder of George Floyd in 2020, we are witnessing increased awareness and understanding around race and racism, and how these issues manifest in society and across different sectors.

We have envisioned different realities where racism has been eradicated and there is equity for all – but the need for systemic change and bureaucratic processes means that this may be a distant dream.

Despite the growing evidence base, there are still questions about whether racism is real and whether systemic inequalities do differentially disadvantage marginalised groups.

In higher education, statistics indicate that there is inequity in how Black students are experiencing higher education compared to white students. This shows up in racialised disparities in access, progression, continuation, completion and outcomes.

The work around the ethnicity awarding gap is a pertinent example of disproportionate outcomes. The ethnicity awarding gap has been a hot topic since 2019, with progress in disaggregated data capture and reporting (to some extent) and investment in (often unsustained) roles.

Also, (under-resourced) initiatives to improve the Black student experience and close the gap have been prevalent. Whilst there are examples of good practice, overall it appears that some of the work happening in this space remains experimental to a certain degree – and we are a few years away from having enough data to accurately review and comparatively analyse the efficacy of such programmes.

But one of the ways we have progressed is through shifting to more of a holistic student life cycle approach – the awarding gap cannot be fixed by looking at academic elements alone but rather by looking at students through an intersectional lens.

This allows for students to be viewed as human beings with intersecting identities and complex experiences that influence the way they engage in their education. We cannot expect students to complete their degree to the best of their ability if they are experiencing microaggressions and racism whilst managing their mental health without access to the right support.

Black student mental health

In 2021-22, 4.5 per cent of full-time students entering university declared a mental health condition. Having access to good mental health and the right support is paramount to fostering environments that allow students to thrive.

But we know that this is not the reality. And we know that student mental health is becoming a growing problem in higher education.

Whilst most universities provide mental health and wellbeing support to students, these services in some cases may be over-subscribed and under-resourced with long waiting lists:

Across the dataset, white students (12%) have on average worse mental health than their peers from other ethnicities, and that these differences are significantly greater than all other ethnicities except for Black Caribbean (10%) and Black Other students (10%), who report mental ill-health at comparable levels. However, those with a “mixed” ethnicity (12%) are nearly exactly as likely to have mental health difficulties as white students.

Although the number of Black students declaring mental health conditions or accessing support may be low, this does not mean that Black students do not experience mental ill health.

It simply means there are more barriers to reporting and seeking help. The consequence of delayed support is that Black people are more likely to receive help when they reach crisis point, thus leading to poorer outcomes.

Whilst there are several barriers to improving access, experiences and outcomes, the lack of culturally appropriate care and tailored support may be a significant barrier to Black students not being able to access the right support when they need it.

Tailored support

45 per cent of Black students experienced racial harassment since starting their course. The most common form of racial harassment is racist name calling, insults or jokes.

Half of Black students say they have experienced being ignored or excluded from conversations or group activities. And four in 10 students who experienced racial harassment in the 2021–22 academic year reported it to their university.

The statistics above are from UUK’s publication on tackling racial harassment in Higher Education.

People’s identities will inevitably influence the diverse life experiences they have. As a result of the socially constructed notion of race, Black students may experience othering, racial weathering, racism and microaggressions, and the impact of this should not be underestimated.

Research indicates that racism and microaggressions can have a devastating impact on a person’s mental health, especially if this is sustained over a period time. The fact that microaggressions are not a legal term under the Equality Act 2010 does not diminish the damaging impact they have on the mental health of Black students.

This is why it was so disappointing to see the OfS new consultation that failed to be explicit about including microaggressions the report and support – and in some areas even suggested that encouraging their reporting be discouraged.

Robust Report and Support mechanisms are needed to create psychologically safe environments for students. How can we tackle racial harassment if we are still dancing around whether microaggressions are acceptable or not?

The tragic case of Samaria Ayanle highlights that systemic failings continue to have harmful impacts on the well-being of Black students. And despite our efforts since 2020, Black students continue to fall through the cracks.

Unfortunately, this is one of many examples where under-resourcing and systemic problems have resulted in fatalities. The high court hearing in 2023 following the death of Natasha Abrahart, a Bristol University student was a significant landmark. Whilst universities may not have a statutory duty of care and remain limited in resources and capacity, resources should still be ring fenced and allocated towards creating better support for students using co-production with students.

The upcoming general election provides a powerful opportunity to continue to lobby for change. The Black Mental Health Manifesto hopes to achieve this progress for Black students and the future of their mental health

A manifesto for change

The Black Mental Health Manifesto, put together by a Black-led coalition of individuals with lived experience, activists, grassroots organisations and national organisations sets out the urgent action needed to improve the mental health of Black people.

The coalition warns that there has been “no meaningful change” in decades despite various reforms and initiatives. Black people experience higher rates of mental ill-health yet often face barriers in accessing treatment.

Racism is highlighted as a driving force, with structural inequality in housing, employment and education harming mental health and “holding back successive generations of Black families from achieving their full potential.”

Racism is a public health issue that needs a cross-sectoral approach in its eradication. Universities and the HE sector need to play their part in this. The manifesto has 6 key policy asks in its summary version – and some of the asks that are relevant to HE include:

The Department of Education should work with racialised communities to develop and embed an anti-racist and diverse curriculum that incorporates the histories and contributions of all racialised communities in the UK.

Policymakers, academic institutions, and funders should actively invest in and engage with community research conducted by and for Black communities in a meaningful way.

The government should invest in culturally responsive interventions made by and for Black people including more Black therapists so Black people can thrive and not just survive.

What do these asks mean for the sector?

  • It is crucial that universities continue working on the decolonisation and diversification of curriculums where possible, adopting appropriate frameworks and engaging with students meaningfully to achieve this.
  • Research grants remain one of the main methods of income generation for universities. Yet research gaps continue to exist when it comes to the mental health of Black people and Black students. By amplifying the value of lived experience and student engagement, universities should look at resourcing and upskilling Black community researchers and engaging with the research they produce in a meaningful way. Recognition of how epistemic violence and injustice manifests is key in this work.
  • Having access to culturally competent care and ethnically diverse mental health professionals is important. To keep up with increasing demand, universities must do more to remove barriers at the access stage and conduct more outreach activities to encourage a range of diverse applicants into programs that have a pathway to becoming mental health professionals.

The recommendations outlined above are a starting point, as there is far more the sector could be doing, for example for refugees and asylum seekers.

Are UK universities equipped to handle the growing mental health crisis? With increasing financial pressures across the sector, how can we move towards providing more holistic care better integrated with local services and VSCEs?

Reflecting on Adam’s blog on how higher education has shown up in general elections, it will be interesting to see whether this will be a priority area for the next government and what the future of education and mental health looks like in this country.

Leave a Reply