In response to the current political climate and the alarming rates at which the pandemic has exacerbated mental-health issues, several doctoral students studying counseling psychology have started a group this month specifically tailored for students of color.
“Racism isn’t new, it’s always been there, it’s just that now it’s in this national consciousness and we recognize the need for such a space for students of color to get together and talk,” said Ankita Nikalje, student director of the Purdue Counseling and Guidance Center. “It’s important to normalize talking about mental health concerns for students of color on campuses, especially in a predominantly white institution like Purdue.”
Widespread protests against police brutality following the killing of George Floyd, combined with the underlying effects of a pandemic, prompted the faculty supervisor for the support groups and director of PCGC, Rachel Ploskonka, to create a safe space for students of color to connect with each other, receive support and talk about any issues or concerns they are facing.
“Within the Counseling Psychology (doctoral) Program, we’re focused on inclusion, social justice and being attentive to the needs of diverse populations,” said Ploskonka. “We needed to figure out how we could work as best as possible to serve the Purdue campus community, particularly the needs of students of color on this campus. There were lots of good resources out there, but definitely more needed to be offered.”
In addition to these local concerns, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 40% of adults in the U.S. struggled with mental health or substance abuse issues in June, a significant increase from numbers in recent years. Racial minorities were moreover found to be disproportionately affected both by mental -health issues and COVID-19. According to the World Health Organization, a reliable support system during the pandemic is essential.
“What we are hoping students gain from this is knowing that other students at Purdue might be experiencing similar struggles,” Nikalje added. “We want to build those relationships between students on campus and let them know that they are not alone”
The weekly hour-and-a-half sessions, which began on Oct. 5, are held over Zoom and follow the same confidentiality rules as individual counseling sessions. While all groups are currently full, they will restart in the spring, with sign-ups available early next semester.
Each group has two doctoral students within the counseling program who serve as co-facilitators. Sessions don’t have predetermined topics, Nikalje said, but rather provide students the chance to discuss whatever is on their minds.
“We don’t want to dictate what students can share,” she said. “It really is just an open space for students to bring in whatever is concerning them and just talk about it without any judgment.”
There is no cost for students to participate in the program, with the only requirement being that students must be physically present in the state of Indiana because of counseling licensing and supervision restrictions. Students interested in joining will have to complete a brief phone screening appointment before being officially added to a group.
“Our hope is that other places in Purdue can also support such efforts,” Nikalje said, “and maybe create more space like this in the future.”