Between racially-targeted rhetoric from presidential candidates or protests over racialized police violence, politics has become personal for many Penn students this election cycle. And administrators at Counseling and Psychological Services noticed in individual sessions, that the political and cultural climate was affecting students emotionally.
For the first time this semester, CAPS is offering a peer support group specifically for students affected by marginalization and discrimination, facilitated by CAPS psychologist, Batsirai Bvunzawabaya.
“I think we don’t always think about discrimination or marginalization as impacting our mental health in pretty significant ways,” Bvunzawabaya said. “And I think sometimes hearing students not even knowing they can use therapy to discuss these experiences.”
Both Bvunzawabaya and CAPS Director Bill Alexander have noticed that this political climate in general has taken a toll on students.
“In this current climate particularly with the national election going on and so much discussion in the country and on campuses about racism, sexual violence, you name it, students bring that into their counseling,” Alexander said.
Bvunzawabaya observed that students have particular difficulty dealing with the emotional impact of national events.
“Students have talked about...sometimes feeling like they feel really sad or drained or don’t feel as safe and they still have to come to class, do everything they have to do,” Bvunzawabaya said. “I feel like you have additional stressors in that way, that they’re also affecting you but you don’t always know what to do with them because you don’t have any control over them. “
While CAPS has facilitated events in the past with different cultural centers in reaction to specific events, faculty felt students needed a more consistent outlet to voice their experiences in weekly sessions. Alexander felt that hosting discussions in a counseling setting would allow students to discuss how political events can seep into their personal life.
“Listening to the national conversation on the news, listening to some of the things that are being said, about minority groups, oppressed groups...are painful, I mean people are scared, people are upset,” Alexander said. “And so it’s one thing to address this at the political level, whether this is good for the country, but we hear much more on the personal level about, ‘This scares me. I don’t know what’s going to happen not only to our country but how about to me and on this campus.’”
While many student groups host political discussions on campus, Alexander felt that CAPS could provide unique services for students to talk about these issues.
“Our experience with the groups is that that kind of difficulty is not spread evenly across all members of the conversation. Some have experienced depression a lot more than others,” Alexander said. “The question was if we could create a safe enough environment facilitated by a clinician, would it be a helpful conversation for people to have?”
Sessions are relatively unstructured, but rather provide an opportunity for students to share their stories. Each session is centered around a theme: Invisible, Other, Courage, Displaced, Hero and Survivor.
“Part of what we’re hoping to do is just use storytelling as a way of exploring what the personal narrative is and to give voice to their experience,” Bvunzawabaya said. “Even within those experiences of feeling discriminated against I think we also just wanted to acknowledge both aspects of it, that it’s not all terrible. I think there’s a lot of sort of resilience that builds from having these experiences that we wanted to acknowledge.”
Bvunzawabaya said turnout at the first meeting was not as high as they had hoped, but she said she hopes advertising the program better will bring out more students. Alexander acknowledged that the unfamiliar setting might have deterred some students.
“You don’t know what you’re gonna expect, can you imagine walking in and it’s kind of weird and seems somewhat contrived,” Alexander said. “I think we’ll do it because we believe in it and I actually believe students will benefit from it. But it might be slow to start because it’s kind of scary.”
Alexander also noted that although CAPS is hosting the sessions, the discussions are not limited to just mental health.
“We’re trying to talk about this, have these conversations, and not frame them like some kind of mental issue... It’s such a human thing,” Alexander said. “This is a conversation about our lives and our lived experiences.”