Health and Color on Campus

Ashira Morris / December 16, 2016

The Steve Fund honors its namesake by promoting the mental health and emotional wellbeing of students of color.

In 2014, the Rose family found themselves at the beginning of a life-long process of healing after the devastating loss of their brother and son, Stephen Rose, to suicide.

“I didn’t want to feel that pain,” said his brother Evan Rose. “But you also can’t escape from it.”

In the immediate aftermath of Steve’s death, Rose turned to writing to work through what he was feeling and posted the text to Tumblr.

“We often have preconceived notions of what someone struggling with mental health issues looks like,” he wrote. “Steve did not fit any of them.”

The post went viral, and was shared tens of thousands of times.

Rose received an outpouring of text and emails in response.

Many of the texts mentioned the mental health challenges their own siblings were facing. It was a consistent, deep undercurrent that no one was sure of how to directly talk about, even within their own family. Evan wanted to bring these conversations about mental health in communities of color to the surface, but at the time, there was no singular organization he could turn to. He wanted to be able to help his friends help their own brothers and sisters facing situations similar to Steve’s.

The extended Rose family took action. They assembled in their family dining room, sticking multi colored Post-Its on the wall, figuring out how to structure an organization dedicated to removing the stigma around mental health for young people of color.

From this conversation, the Steve Fund emerged.

The Steve Fund is the only nonprofit focused solely on the mental health and emotional wellbeing of students of color. The entire family has been involved from the beginning, with Evan as president, and Stephanie Bell-Rose and Chris Rose, Steve and Evan’s parents, as two of the members of the board of directors. Jason Rose, Steve and Evan’s brother, is now the co-chair of the Youth Advisory Board.

The family decided initially to focus on young people throughout their college and university years, including the transitions into school and out to life beyond. Most mental illnesses first appear during adolescence and young adulthood, age groups that are often overlooked by research. It’s compounded for students of color; non-white populations are also frequently neglected by medical research. The data that do exist is rarely stratified by race or gender.

The Steve Fund takes on its mission by increasing the knowledge and conversation around the mental and emotional health issues of students of color. Immediately after it was founded in 2014, it became a hub for researchers, practitioners, and advocates who had been working on related issues independently.

The Rose family only had personal experience in the field of mental health, so one of their first steps was to gather a team of medical and research experts.

Dr. Annelle Primm was the first person the family reached out to. Primm has been working on mental health at the intersection of young adults and people of color for most of her career; she led the Office of Minority and National Affairs at the American Psychiatric Association until 2015.

“My whole life has been geared toward understanding the mental health needs of those populations in the face of racism and xenophobia and working to undo the disparities,” said Primm, now the Senior Medical Advisor to the Steve Fund. “There are not many platforms that recognize and honor this work. In the same way that ‘minority’ populations are dismissed and marginalized, the people who study these populations are sometimes treated that way in academia.”

The family reached out to a list of scholars, leaders, and researchers at Primm’s recommendation who were knowledgeable about students of color.

Dr. Alfiee Breland-Noble, an associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University, was one of the initial researchers the family brought onto the team. She is now the Senior Scientific Advisor and frequently reaches out to professional organizations working with or researching nonwhite populations.

“Their eyes just light up when I tell them what the Steve Fund does,” she said, “because it’s filling a void that for a long time was both unfilled and seen as unimportant. In our field, those of us who are disparities researchers feel like the thumb on the hand trying to center our work.”

The mental health of people of color may have been marginalized in the past, but the Steve Fund’s work is looking toward the future. By 2044, the current “minority” population is projected to increase above 50 percent, making the word useful only in reference to a previous time, before non-white populations were the majority. In the next five years, that shift will have already happened in the under 18 population.

“If you care about the health of the next generation,” Rose said, “you have to care about the health of people of color.”

From the beginning, the Steve Fund has been intentional about creating a self-perpetuating cycle of work that begins with providing scholarships to young researchers studying the mental and emotional health of students of color. Research by outstanding scholars is presented at the Young, Gifted & @Risk conference which the Fund hosts annually. It then becomes more visible through the Steve Fund’s Knowledge Center and informs the Fund’s programs and recommendations.

A recent partnership with the JED Foundation published a survey on black and Latino students’ perceptions of their freshman year on campus relative to their white peers. The JED Foundation, which is dedicated to suicide prevention, is also a family foundation created after the loss of a son to suicide.

The analysis found the students of color felt both more overwhelmed in their first year of college and less comfortable seeking help than their white peers. Only 23 percent of black students reported feeling emotionally prepared for college, but 75 percent tend to keep feelings about these challenges to themselves. Black students are also far less likely to have been diagnosed with mental illness before arriving on campus—an indication that they are less likely to have had mental health support.

Armed with this information and new research to be released this spring, the two organizations are jointly creating a model for colleges to follow that will better support the mental health of their students of color.

Beginning with a base-level acknowledgement that students of color face a different set of challenges is key, says Breland-Noble, who worked on the guidelines and presented them at this year’s Young, Gifted & @Risk conference in St. Louis, Mo.

“If a student of color is not at a HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities], you are going to have some unique challenges,” she said. “This is parallel to why the Fund is important because prior to the Steve Fund there was not that basic acknowledgement.”

The Fund now serves as a public-facing clearinghouse for research and as a hub for general information and advocacy, giving people who weren’t previously engaged a way to understand there was a void to begin with -- and that the Steve Fund is providing a model of how to fill the void.

In the two years of the Fund’s existence, it has grown its programming to include a Youth Advisory Board, webinars for parents and mental health practitioners, and programs for colleges and non-profits. Their partnership with Crisis Text Line trains young people of color to be crisis counselors for the free text-based counseling service, which provides around the clock support.

“The Fund is like the root, the bark, the stem,” Breland-Noble said, “but all of us are the branches. It galvanized an entire group of people that had been siloed.”

The new organization has contributed to broad positive trends, including an increased public dialogue about mental health and recognition of its intersection with factors like ethnicity, class and gender. Its role as awareness builder and convener for students, administrators, researchers, and advocates is more valuable than ever given the escalation of racially charged incidents on college campuses in the wake of the recent presidential election.

This year’s Young, Gifted & @Risk symposium at Washington University occurred just days after the election.

“Many of the people who attended were reeling from the results,” Primm said. “But I’m glad we chose that timing. It offered a beacon of hope that there was already an organized effort underway offering knowledge, resources, and programming that could help buffer some of the negativity arising in the current environment.”

Over 250 people packed the room for Evan’s opening comments.

“When we started The Steve Fund, I couldn’t have predicted 250 people in a room dedicated to bringing this kind of programming to schools,” he said. “It blew me away.”