Articles & Resources

Society for Health Psychology

A Call to Action: Graduate Students of Color and Mental Health (Part 2)

Diversity & Multiculturalism, Student Advisory Council

By: Marc Chaney, MA 

For part two of this call to action, two main factors that affect mental health for students of color will be explored as mechanisms of change: mentorship and an inclusive learning environment. Faculty mentorship is considered one of the most important resources for students and includes opportunities for research collaboration, authorship, grant writing, and applying for fellowships (Brunsma et al., 2013). Unfortunately, minorities in academia do not receive good mentorship when compared to their White counterparts (Noy and Ray 2012; Segura et al., 2011). Curtin et al. (2013) underlined the importance of mentorship and found that students of color complete graduate school at higher rates and more quickly if they have a high academic self-concept, feel a sense of belonging, and perceive their advisor as supportive.

Alvarez, Blume, Cervantes, and Thomas (2009) outlined five essential elements to mentoring students of color:

  • The first element, Culture and Academia highlights different social expectations between traditional cultures and academic culture. Examples of key components that can be modeled and mentored are how to maintain a healthy balance between family responsibility and academia, how to cope with financial stressors and resources upon graduation and early career, and guidance on how to navigate the pressures of being a first-generation student in higher education.
  • The second element, Shared/Assumed Existential Posture, asks the mentor to take a balanced stance towards the mentee allowing sociocultural and language similarities to be a point of contact and not assumptions that may bias the relationship. For example, modeling value systems that promote inclusivity and respect for differences and avoid ethnocentric power dynamics.
  • The next element, Racial Discrimination, states that mentors must be aware that students of color may have a fundamental distrust of educational institutions due to historical abuses. Mentors must acknowledge the deleterious effects that racial discrimination, within and outside of academia, has on a mentee and be willing to help negotiate and cope with discriminatory experiences (e.g., microaggressions, marginalization, tokenism, questions of credibility). Mentors must be able to validate and help to navigate and cope with experiences of discrimination. It is also pertinent that mentors advocate for their mentees in the face of experienced discrimination.
  • Racial and Ethnic Self-awareness is the next element that entails recognition and awareness of one’s racial and ethnic identity through self-reflection to foster a sense of safety around discussions about race, ethnicity, and discrimination. The authors suggest that mentors assess their awareness of and attitudes toward issues of race, ethnicity, and culture for both themselves and their mentees; to educate themselves about the culture of their mentees; and be aware of an individual’s point of racial identity development and its impact on the relationship (Alvarez et al., 2009, p. 187).
  • The last essential element, Relationship and Process, consists of two components. The first component, interpersonal dynamics, focuses on the quality of the relationship that is shaped between mentor and mentee, based on a solid understanding and sense of identification with race, ethnicity, and culture. Helm’s (1995) racial identity interaction theory is suggested for mentors as a conceptual framework for understanding the quality of relationships with their mentees (Alvarez et al., 2009, p. 185). The second component, psychoeducation, about the mentoring relationship allows mentors to shed light on cultural norms and expectations around mentorship and graduate-level education. Mentors are encouraged to initiate explicit discussions around the mentoring relationship, benefits of mentorship, and the manner of initiating and maintaining mentoring relationships.

Linder, Harris, Allen, and Hubain (2015) found that students expressed disappointment in the ways faculty and students in their program enacted their commitment to diversity and social justice, specifically as it relates to engagement of white peers and faculty practices in the classroom (p. 185). Recommendations for creating an inclusive learning environment start with:

  • The importance of setting group norms and ground rules at the beginning of class.
  • Encouragement for faculty facilitating hard conversations to alleviate the pressure felt by students of color to correct misinformation and misperceptions.
  • Another recommendation is for faculty to invite further exploration or clarification from students in the classroom in an effort to seek clarification of students and challenge notions of privilege without isolating students of color or shutting down White students (P. 187).
  • Building authenticity and faculty vulnerability and building relationships with students were also noted as important components of inclusive learning environments.
  • The last recommendation is validation and has been attributed as a significant factor in student growth experiences.

Graduate students of color are not afforded the privilege of higher education without the experience of different forms of racism. Further, racial stress and burden centered on current events of institutionalized racism and police brutality are carried over to our professional and academic work and negatively impact mental health.

These recommendations are not exhaustive, and each relationship should be evaluated individually. However, through building strong relationships with mentors and fostering an inclusive classroom environment, the mental health of graduate students of color can be improved and supported.


Alvarez, A. N., Blume, A. W., Cervantes, J. M., & Thomas, L. R. (2009). Tapping the wisdom tradition: Essential elements to mentoring students of color. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice40(2), 181.

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 Ethnicity3(1), 1-13.

Helms, J. E. (1995). An update of Helm’s White and people of color racial identity models. In J. G. Ponterotto, J. M. Casas, L. A. Suzuki, & C. M. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural counseling (p. 181–198). Sage Publications, Inc.

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 Education48(2), 178-194.

Noy, S., & Ray, R. (2012). Graduate students’ perceptions of their advisors: Is there systematic disadvantage in mentorship?. The Journal of Higher Education83(6), 876-914.

Segura, D. A., Brooks, S., Shin, J. H., & Romo, L. (2011). Report of the American Sociological Association (ASA) Committee on the Status of Racial and Ethnic Minorities (SREM) in Sociology: Results of the Graduate Student Survey. American Sociological Association, Washington, DC.