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MU Graduate Students Facilitate 'Healing From Racial Injustices'

Kathryn Palmer

It’s been three years since the nation watched student activist group Concerned Student 1950 protest structural racism at the University of Missouri. Many of the issues spotlighted then, such as MU’s perceived reluctance to acknowledge the history and contributions of people of color, still persist today. This can be traumatizing and invalidating for the 17 percentof non-white students on campus, especially when the modes of racism are invisible to their white peers. But two MU psychology doctoral candidates, Yoanna McDowell and Jonathan Ferguson, are working to alleviate that stress. 

They co-lead a weekly support group called Healing from Racial Injustices, which provides students of color a place to discuss their experiences with race-related stress at MU.

“We learn a lot from the students who participate,” Ferguson said. “There’s so much wisdom and so much depth in the experiences our students bring in. I get filled every Thursday. Every time we begin this group, by the end of the hour I feel like a different person.”

Both Ferguson and McDowell say racial discrimination and cultural invalidation for students of color are daily obstacles on a campus once open only to white men; MU did not admit its first black student until 1950. 

“If you go into a class and everything you read about is from white authors and everything you talk about is predominately white issues,” McDowell said. “I have heard from students that when they have raised that as an issue, they get shot down. Even though you might not be throwing a racial slur at someone, you’re saying ‘hey you’re not important.’”

A wide body of research confirms that repeated experiences of various forms of racism add up over time and can lead to symptoms of psychological trauma. The symptoms are similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder, and can include hypervigilance, anxiety and depression, according to one peer-reviewed study in theJournal of Counseling Psychology.

Creating a space to talk through it is one of the reasons why McDowell said the group is only open to students of color.

“We already don’t really have a space, so making a space available is like ‘This is your space, you’re free to talk about whatever without feeling like you have to be restricted or someone’s going to put you down,’” McDowell said. “Not saying that if white members did come they would do that. But it’s just to have something that you can feel more comfortable talking about issues you might not get to talk about.”

Former psychology graduate student Angela Haeny co-founded the support group in 2014 to help students cope with the side-effects of minority underrepresentation on campus. A year later, during the fall 2015 protests, student activist group Concerned Student 1950 raised similar issues in its highly publicized list of demands to the administration. Demand number seven was for an increased mental health budget for the purpose of hiring more mental health professionals of color and boosting outreach for the MU Counseling Center. 

In the spring of 2017, MU students did vote to increase funding toward the center, which was intended to pay for three additional counselors, according to previous KBIA reporting. Of the 31 mental health care professionals employed by MU, 10 identify as people of color, according to data provided by MU spokeswoman Liz McCune.

In 2016, 32 percent of psychology doctoral degrees were granted to people of color, according to data compiled by the American Psychological Association. But as of 2015 less than one-fifth of the U.S. psychology workforce identified as racial or ethnic minorities. Those numbers suggest finding a mental health professional who looks like them, and can empathize with racial trauma, is an ongoing challenge for people of color.  

Haeny says the need for the support group, which is not considered official mental health treatment, is obvious. But continuing to meet that need comes at a price known as “the minority tax.”

“People of color have to take on additional things like starting this group,” Haeny said. “Yoanna and Jonathan, they’re not getting paid or getting credit for this. Just because we see that it’s a need we take on these types of responsibilities.” 

McDowell said the total costs for running the support group is around $1,000, and that covers the cost of food and renting the space in the Multicultural Center. The program has received support from numerous sources on campus including the Division of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity; the Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology; and MU Black Studies Department. 

Haeny moved to Connecticut in 2017 to complete a residency in clinical psychology at Yale School of Medicine. Now, Ferguson and McDowell lead the group together. From what he’s seen, Ferguson says MU has a long way to go before the group is no longer relevant: “I can’t really envision a time on this campus where it’s not necessary to have a space like this”

In the meantime, Ferguson and McDowell welcome all students of color in need of healing from racial injustices to join them from 2-3 p.m. on Thursdays in the Multicultural Center. No appointment necessary.

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