More mental health support needed for Black graduate students

Written by Danielle Cattani and GSA Staff

Many graduate students face mental health challenges every day. However, the challenges are even more unique for Black graduate students, or in Danielle’s case, a Black woman in academia.

Danielle Cattani (she/her) is a multiracial Black woman and a current Master of Science student in Medical Science at the University of Calgary. She did her undergraduate degree in neuroscience at the University of Alberta and decided to move back to Calgary for her master’s degree so that she could be closer to her family and her grandma, who was suffering from dementia. This led her to pursue her passion for pregnancy and child development research in the Developmental Psychobiology lab, which has helped her grow and thrive on a personal and academic level.

Danielle shared with us some of her mental health struggles which are common among graduate students including imposter syndrome, anxiety surrounding academic performance, and challenges with toxic perfectionism. However, as a Black woman and a second-generation immigrant from Jamaica, growing up, she was taught that she needed to work twice as hard as her peers to achieve her goals. After facing years of discrimination from teachers and fellow students, on top of the added mental health challenges, she knew that navigating academia as a Black woman would be difficult.

As a Black woman in academic settings, her daily fears are different from the norms. She often worries that her natural hair and culturally significant hairstyles will be deemed “unprofessional,” and that others will make assumptions about her based on the colour of her skin. In past academic settings, she has received inappropriate comments about her Jamaican heritage from her colleagues, faced anti-Black discriminatory comments from other students, and had countless microaggressions made against her. Danielle felt uncomfortable, and more importantly, unsafe in those discriminatory environments. Unfortunately, these experiences are harder to face with an isolating environment due to the lack of representation of Black students, faculty, and staff, resulting in insurmountable levels of stress and anxiety. While discrimination persists for Black students at the University of Calgary and universities across Canada, Danielle notes that her lab has been a safe haven and vital support system for her throughout her studies.

These experiences of isolation and discrimination as a Black student are not unique to Danielle. Recently, a study was performed by professor Patrina Duhaney and colleagues looking at accounts of anti-Black racism at the University of Calgary. Duhaney and colleagues noted that 67% of non-faculty staff respondents reported having witnessed accounts of anti-Black racism at the university. Furthermore, 68% of Black student respondents pointed out a lack of representation of Black professors at the University of Calgary. These statistics only tell a small piece of the story of the lived experience of Black individuals on university campuses. Fellow Black students that Danielle has met, from various institutions, have also experienced intense feelings of isolation due to a lack of representation. They also share concerns about preconceived notions colleagues and supervisors may have based on their race and have often felt unsafe in academic spaces. Like Danielle, in academic and non-academic settings, fellow Black students have had people use anti-Black discriminatory language around them, have had their personal space violated as individuals touch and fetishize their hair and have faced various micro-aggressions. These experiences, whether faced outside of school or in an academic setting, have lasting impacts on their mental health. 

So far, Danielle has taken advantage of various mental health resources available off-campus to manage her anxiety. She thinks that more needs to be done to improve access to mental health resources for Black graduate students. Her suggested improvements include increased awareness of existing services, higher insurance coverage for mental health counselling from the GSA plan, greater representation in counselling services, resources tailored specifically to the unique experiences of Black individuals, and increased awareness of the struggles that Black students face every day.

Currently, Danielle is the Events Coordinator of the Medical Science Student’s Association, and she is supporting the planning of the event Let’s Talk About: Black Canadian Mental Health with various subcommittees of the GSA. She hopes to spread awareness for the unique mental health challenges that Black academics face, “As a Black woman in academia, I am motivated to share my experiences so others will come to recognize the difficulties that accompany being a Black individual at a Canadian university.”

Danielle highly encourages other graduate students and the community to attend this event to hear about lived experiences of Black women in academia. She says that together we can stand in solidarity with Black students to show support and amplify their voices to increase awareness of their unique challenges.

“I also want other Black students to know that they are not alone in what they are going through. As a community we face these injustices, and together we can heal.”, Danielle comments.

Register for the event here

Lastly, as a Black individual, it can be difficult to find mental health resources tailored towards our experience. Danielle has kindly shared some resources from Calgary, Alberta, and Canada that serve the Black community:

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