A Call to Action: Graduate Students of Color and Mental Health (Part 1)

By Marc Chaney, MA (SfHP Student Member)

Mental health for graduate students of color is a topic that is often overlooked. The focus of this blog is to push the conversation regarding the adversity that is commonly faced by these students. The topic of this article was inspired by a cohort member and person of color who passed away while pursuing her doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

For many of us, graduate school may be the most challenging period of our lives, and even more so if one is a person of color (POC). The literature on the experiences of graduate students of color has not been systematically documented; however, a POC can experience racism, discrimination, and racial microaggressions within their programs (Brunsma et al., 2017). Linder et al. (2015) reported that microaggressions often experienced include: allegations of oversensitivity to white student denial of racism; ascription of intelligence (assigning intelligence to a POC based on race and gender); questioning credibility; and assumptions of criminality, isolation, marginalization, and tokenization. Microaggressions lead to a POC experiencing higher levels of emotional distress/depression, poorer overall mental health, and a weakened sense of belonging (Clark et al., 2012; Torres et al., 2010). Given that graduate students complete graduate school at higher and faster rates when they feel a sense of belonging, feel supported by their advisor, and have a high academic self-concept, it is paramount that students of color unique challenges are acknowledged and adequately supported throughout their academic tenure (Curtin et al., 2013).

Geneva Gay (2004) classified the aforementioned experiences as marginalization and identified three significant forms: isolation, benign neglect, and problematic popularity. Gay described that isolation usually manifests as being the “only one” or “one of the very few” and can refer to intellectual, cultural, or physical isolation. An example of benign neglect may include professors and advisors that do not provide the kind of critical and constructive instruction needed to develop intellectual, research, writing, and teaching skills (Gay, 2004, p. 277). Further, Gay stated that problematic popularity is often revealed when a POC’s experience is sought to ‘represent’ the entire experience of their ethnicity/race, and being asked to serve on committees, programs, and promotional materials to represent diversity (p. 284).

I believe that these forms of marginalization often contribute to varying degrees of imposter syndrome. My own experience with this phenomenon caused me to measure my ‘academic worth’ by the length of my Curriculum Vitae. I became involved in too many things too quickly, and as a result, struggled through burnout, fatigue, and delayed internship for one year. I was able to identify and make healthy changes through reflection, reintegration into my community, talking with mentors, and acknowledgment of my accomplishments. I know that my experience is not unique to other trainees that identity as a POC, and systemic changes need to be made to minimize these day-to-day adverse experiences.

I would like to acknowledge the dearth of research pertaining to all social identity minorities under the ADDRESSING Model framework (Hays, 1996). My voice speaks to my experience as a biracial, cisgender male; therefore, I do not have lived experiences of other minority statuses. However, it can be assumed that other social identity minorities experience similar negative consequences, and the intersection of minority identities adds layers of complexity to our lived experiences. Actionable steps need to be implemented using an ecological approach to change the culture of higher education for all minority graduate students.

In part 2 of this blog, strategies and recommendations will be covered that can be implemented to address some of these challenges for students of color.


Brunsma, D. L., Embrick, D. G., & Shin, J. H. (2017). Graduate students of color: Race, racism, and mentoring in the white waters of academia. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 3(1), 1-13.

Clark, C. R., Mercer, S. H., Zeigler-Hill, V., & Dufrene, B. A. (2012). Barriers to the success of ethnic minority students in school psychology graduate programs. School Psychology Review, 41(2), 176-192.

Curtin, N., Stewart, A. J., & Ostrove, J. M. (2013). Fostering academic self-concept: Advisor support and sense of belonging among international and domestic graduate students. American Educational Research Journal, 50(1), 108-137.

Gay, G. (2004). Navigating marginality en route to the professoriate: Graduate students of color learning and living in academia. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 17(2), 265-288.

Linder, C., Harris, J. C., Allen, E. L., & Hubain, B. (2015). Building inclusive pedagogy: Recommendations from a national study of students of color in higher education and student affairs graduate programs. Equity & Excellence in Education, 48(2), 178-194.

Hays, P. A. (1996). Addressing the complexities of culture and gender in counseling. Journal of Counseling & Development, 74(4), 332-338.

Torres, L., Driscoll, M. W., & Burrow, A. L. (2010). Racial microaggressions and psychological functioning among highly achieving African-Americans: A mixed-methods approach. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 29(10), 1074-1099.

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