When Paul Quinn College students arrived on campus in August 2019, one of the first things they did was meet with a counselor who assesses their mental health needs. The historically Black college in Texas is addressing an issue that is plaguing ALL colleges in America: a surge in depression and anxiety.
We see this issue at Bennett College, the historically Black women’s college where we teach. When we put yoga on the books for college credit, the hope was that 10 people would sign up. Almost 70 students registered. Why the overwhelming interest? The answer came when they wrote their first paper. More than half indicated they’d experienced depression or anxiety. They came to yoga looking for some relief.
While there are a lot of programs that provide yoga for young children, we forget that seemingly happy-go-party college students experience stress acutely and could benefit from asana and mindfulness practices. In fact, 35 percent of the college students surveyed in a World Health Organization World Mental Health Survey reported at least one mental disorder.
A number of universities have innovative programs that incorporate yoga for stress relief and mental health support. University of Wisconsin-Superior offers weekly yoga and mindfulness classes for students. University of Vermont has yoga for mood management classes. Yale, New York University and others offer yoga to students in an effort to help them combat stress.
More Black colleges need to implement these kinds of mental health innovations. Black student organizations on predominately white institutions (PWIs) would do well to consider mental health programming designed for people of color as well. Aside from the general stressors that all college students face — pressure to make grades, meet tuition costs, deal with personal conflicts — students of color also have to deal with the traumas caused by just being Black. While college should be a place for learning and exploring, time and again, we see racist actions on campuses across the country. That is traumatizing for students of color and other marginalized groups.
In our experience at Bennett, we found that some special considerations go into teaching to college students:
- Realize they’re the distracted generation. A growing number of college students have attention deficits — made worse by the constant distraction of their phones and other technology. Even getting them to leave their phone off the mat is surprisingly difficult. They need extra encouragement on holding poses and being still in Savasana.
- Don’t assume that youth equals able-bodied. Unless they are athletes, many college students are neither fit nor flexible. That means starting at a beginner level and perhaps offering separate classes for more athletic types.
- But don’t assume the “thick” student can’t do the practice. I’ve found that many of my students in abundant bodies have beautiful alignment. (I theorize that this is because they are socialized to be more body aware.) The issue of body image and body competition also need to be addressed among the selfie generation.
- Yoga “parties” can be a gateway to a regular practice. When a student group asked me to lead a “Trap Yoga” class I was reluctant. (Have you heard trap music lyrics?) But we had a packed house, and some of those students signed up for the regular yoga class.
- Intentionally include “dharma” talks that relates yoga philosophies to their personal concerns like roommate conflicts, imposter syndrome, family stressors and other worries.
I’m working with my colleague, social psychologist Santiba Campbell, to study the impact and effectiveness of these programs in improving our students’ mental health — or at least raising awareness of their need for mental health assistance.
While there is evidence that yoga can benefit mental health, it can’t be a substitute for the kind of comprehensive care that college students may need. But it may just be the thing to get students more relaxed and open to seeking help.
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Santiba Campbell, PhD, RYT-200 is a social psychologist who focuses on Black identity development. Tamara Jeffries, MFA, RYT-200 teaches journalism and writes about health in the Black community. Both are on faculty at Bennett College, a historically Black women’s college in Greensboro, North Carolina.