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  • Writer's pictureJessica Harris

Auntie Jess's Mental Health Call to Action

We have to make the mental health of STEM students and professionals a priority in STEM.


In 2021, I was certified as a Mental Health First Aider and this year I was certified as a Mental Health First Aid Instructor.


I am committing to be the change I want to be in the world by focusing on support for students and professionals in STEM. Part of my focus is on mental health. I am setting out on a mission to increase the number of Mental Health First Aiders in our STEM Field.


I want to increase the number of professionals in our field who are trained as Mental Health First Aiders. If we can increase the number of MHFA in STEM we will have a FORCE of first responders providing our students with mental health support. MHFAs are trained to identify mental health and substance abuse challenges. If we have our front line to students academic advisors, faculty, staff, and advisors with this training we can better intervene with students and provide them with holistic support.


This call to action is personal and something I will continue to dedicate my life work towards.


I don’t want our students to suffer in silence.

I don’t want our students to suffer in silence. I want them to be able to manage their mental health with a supportive community around them. If one has strong internal forces within, cultivated and nurtured they will have the necessary tools to navigate and thrive against the external forces in STEM.


We must act now because our STEAM field is silently suffering. We have to counter the toxic culture. "Just suck it up." "Just work 50-60+ hours a week, if you wanted it so bad that shouldn't be a problem."

I will never forget this very impactful workshop at the 229th AAS Meeting in Grapevine, Texas. Prof. Jorge Moreno and Dr. Nicole Cabrera Salazar facilitated a work entitled "Town Hall on Racism in Astronomy". You can read a summary of the report here. I often reference this poster "I wish my white colleagues knew..." to help bring to life the lived experiences of the astronomers of color and the women at AAS. I share some of these same experiences. One person shared "...that I'm too scared to let others know how isolated I feel, fearing that other white students and professors will belittle my experience. I'm honestly not sure if I want to continue in astronomy when I graduate." I resonate so much with this. Several years ago, I was at a turning point when I wanted to walk away completely from the field of physics and astronomy. I am very thankful for all who shared with us their truths and thankful to Moreno and Cabrera Salazar for hosting this workshop.


The Data

As a scientist, I know that the data and statistics are important. Here is a brief summary of the statistics on the impact of mental health and substance abuse challenges in the Black community. I have identified the data into subsections.


Mental Health Challenges Data

From Mental Health America: 13.4% of the U.S. populations identifies as Black or African American. Of those, over 16% reported having a mental health illness in the past year (Mental Health America 2020). According to the National Library of Medicine, the average time between the onset of a mental disorder and receiving first treatment is more than 10 years. (Mental Health First Aid USA June 2022).

There was a study in 2020 at Michigan State University. The study was to reach Black U.S. medical students. Among the 750 students who completed the survey 733 self-identified as Black, 586 as female, and 450 were in their first year or second year of medical school. One of the findings was that "students who perceived frequent discriminatory experiences were more likely to have symptoms of depression, as were students who reported that their institutions did not respond to seminal racial events" (Milam, A. J., Brown, I., Edwards-Johnson, J., McDougle, L., Sousa, A., & Furr-Holden, D. 2022).


From this Inside Higher Ed article, "College administrators, in surveys, repeatedly list student mental health as one of their top concerns and improving it as one of their top priorities. (Greta Anderson October 2020)."


Excerpt from the National Academies, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2023. The State of Anti-Black Racism in the United States: Reflections and Solutions from the Roundtable on Black Men and Black Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Discussion from Dr. Shirly Malcom, "Dr. Malcom commented STEM presents additional challenges because it has been considered an inherently elitist space. She related that in the Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas (570 U.S. 297 (2013)), Justice John Roberts asked, “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?”


Two additional highlights from the presentation:

1. Black science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learners deal with a duality in their professional and personal lives, and it is important to identify both the risk and protective factors affecting them (Dr. Felix)

2. The stigma around mental health services must be lifted so students feel they can access the supports they need (Dr. Stewart).


The role of a Mental Health First Aider is to address common mental health concerns encountered by adults and to reduce stigma. The stigma in the Black community often hinders us from seeking out help and getting the care we deserve. "Stigma and judgment prevent Black and African American people from seeking treatment for their mental illnesses. Research indicates that Blacks and African Americans believe that mild depression or anxiety would be considered “crazy” in their social circles. Furthermore, many believe that discussions about mental illness would not be appropriate even among family" (Mental Health America 2020).


Lastly, data from MHFA USA:

  • 88% of college students reported their school life to be stressful.

  • 60%* of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health challenge.

  • 1/2* of college students followed from freshman to junior year met the criteria for at least one substance use challenge during that time.

You can learn more by downloading the MHFA for Higher Education one-pager.


Auntie Jess's Mental Health STEM Approach


These are external factors that are embedded in higher education and academic high hierarchies that will require significant efforts to move the needle for disruptive change. The current efforts are a work in progress and will occur in long-term time frames. Our students require an immediate change NOW. Our students are suffering now. Our students are facing these systems NOW. Our students are learning to navigate these internal politics now.


There are external forces that students historically underrepresented in STEM face. The external forces include:

  • systematic racism

  • sexism

  • racism

  • microaggressions (all of the types)

  • Emotional labor

  • Toxic Environments in STEM

  • Economic and social constructs

  • Limited funding

These are external factors that are embedded in higher education and academic high hierarchies that will require significant efforts to move the needle for disruptive change. The current efforts are a work in progress and will occur in long-term time frames. Our students require an immediate change NOW. Our students are suffering now. Our students are facing these systems NOW. Our students are learning to navigate these internal politics now.

I am proposing a response to this needed shift by providing students with mental health support now. I fundamentally believe that every student matriculating in STEM should be provided a licensed professional for the duration of undergrad, graduate, and post-doctoral programs into their early careers. "Only 40% of Black students graduate from four-year universities and colleges within even six years, compared with 64% of white students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics; the rest are still struggling through or have dropped out, most of them with debt but no degree (The Hechinger Report May 2023)."


Studies show that BIPOC students are most susceptible to mental health challenges and go without being diagnosed and supported. There is a stigma in the African-American community about mental health challenges. Which adds layers to seeking and identifying mental health challenges. There are a lot of great efforts by national, federal, state, and local levels to increase the number of BIPOC students getting degrees in STEM. (TEAM-UP, Master to PhD Programs, Post-Bac programs, non-profit efforts, etc). One major issue that we need to address in increasing the numbers is providing better holistic support to ensure our students are not just surviving but thriving in STEM. To create belonging and increase STEM identity we must focus not just on recruitment but retention and the STEM environments students enter. This is without argument that generally speaking STEM academic spaces can be hostile for BIPOC students. “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” (Alexander Den Heijer). We have to change the soil in STEM. One way to approach this is by providing better mental health support for students. "When a flower doesn't blow you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower." (Alexander den Heijer).


We have to change the soil in STEM. One way to approach this is by providing better mental health support for students.


We are losing major contributions to science because of external forces. There is so much emotional and mental labor required for BIPOC students to show up authentically in STEM compared to their white counterparts. Systems designed for the majority are simply not applicable to students of color. It is my belief that we cannot address imposter syndrome in students traditionally excluded in STEM without also addressing these external factors and their lived experiences. This is a construct that is opposed onto students of color. "[Students of color] may experience impostor syndrome at a higher rate than White college students (Rebecca Grim April 2022). There is research in the social sciences to support the impacts of racial oppression, like racial battle fatigue. Learn more in this handout "Racial Battle Fatigue" from the Oregan Center for Educational Equity.


The external forces are fixed and will take major reform to change. I want to believe that one day these external forces will be addressed and will change. This work is worthy to continue to pursue, but I have dedicated my career to supporting students in more direct and immediate ways. As mentioned above action needs to happen now. I am proposing that if I had a magic wand we would create a national hotline to support students as they matriculate in STEM that has culturally trained mental health practitioners and mentors that can provide them with immediate support. Taking Auntie Jess Mentoring to a national scale with immediate support that works to connect students with local resources for long-term support and appropriate mental health care.

I am proposing a system I am calling an internal force to push back against the external forces. If we can support our students individually and holistically, I propose that we will have a greater number of students successfully thriving in STEM in ways that are most meaningful for them.


Internal forces – the ability to change immediate factors within one’s control. Internal forces include one’s self-esteem, self-awareness, confidence, and control of one’s emotions and thoughts. If you foster and nurture these internal forces the likelihood of a student THRIVING in STEM increases. The student will have a health support system and community. They will develop a strong sense of belonging and STEM identity.


There is extensive research on the importance of mentoring. Through my lived experience and career experiences I have experienced time and time again the positive impacts of this holistic approach with the student at the center. Our BIPOC students are brilliant and will be successful in STEM if given the right soil environment to thrive. In my mentoring over the years, I have provided less advice on specific scientific research and more on social and life skills. Providing these additional skills is what I call providing students with the keys to playing chess vs playing checkers. Yes, students need to be developed academically. They also need these “soft skills”. An immediate example that comes to mind is the students from the National Astronomy Consortium (NAC). The NAC students have a track record of winning the Chambliss Award at AAS. Programs I have been involved in like LSAMP and MARC provided us with academic support but also how to navigate attending conferences, getting letters of recommendation, GRE prep, etc. Soft skills and personal development are part of the tool kit for the internal force.


My proposed answer is to increase the effective implementation of mentoring in STEM. Our field now knows this needs to happen, but haven’t found the best way to make this a reality. I propose focusing on mental health. I want to increase the number of professionals in our field who are trained as Mental Health First Aiders. If we can increase the number of MHFA in STEM we will have a FORCE to be first responders to providing our students with mental health support. MHFAs are trained to identify mental health and substance abuse challenges. If we have our front line to students academic advisors, faculty, staff, and advisors with this training we can better intervene with students and provide them with holistic support.

I want to increase the number of professionals in our field who are trained as Mental Health First Aiders

I don’t want our students to suffer in silence. I want them to be able to manage their mental health with a supportive community around them. If one has strong internal forces within, cultivated and nurtured they will have the necessary tools to navigate and thrive against the external forces in STEM.

What I have described above is what I am calling the Auntie Jess Mental Health STEM Approach. This is my hypothesis, if we can build up internal forces to combat the external forces there will be an increase in the number of students THRIVING In STEM.


Call to Action


We must act now because our STEM field is silently suffering. I am committed to training 600 MHFA in the next 5 years. I will need help from professional STEM societies and programs to make this goal a reality.


What I am proposing is not a novel approach, however, it is a unique way to address mental health in STEM. Incorporating into STEM from other social sciences. With the development of MHFA in STEM we are adding a unique lens to what is an experience very common in STEM.


As I work toward this goal, I commit to preparing the table for my fellow family members to join in Emotional Emancipation Circles for Blacks in STEM. A place for us to heal.


Will you join me to be the change we want to see in the world now? Register to become a Mental Health First Aider. I am offering a FREE Adult Blended Mental Health First Aid training on Thursday, November 2nd at 9 a.m. EST.


Will you take the Auntie Jess Pledge:

I will commit to doing no more harm

I will commit to being an anti-racist

I will commit to being a true ally

I will commit to the hard work of self-reflection

To commit every day to making our STEM field a better place

I will commit to believing my STEM family when expressing their experiences.


If you would like to make this commitment fill out this Google form here.


Additional actions you can take today:

Learn more about Mental Health First Aid:

Mental Health First Aid is an early intervention public education program. It teaches adults how to recognize the signs and symptoms that suggest a potential mental health challenge, how to listen nonjudgmentally and give reassurance to a person who may be experiencing a mental health challenge, and how to refer a person to appropriate professional support and services.


Mental Health First Aid was created in Australia in 2000 by Betty Kitchener, an educator and mental health consumer, and Professor Tony Jorm, a mental health researcher. In 2008, the National Council, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the Missouri Department of Mental Health brought Mental Health First Aid to the United States. https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/population-focused-modules/adults/.




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