Substance Abuse in College Students: How the Lived Experiences of Black College Women May Impact Their Substance Use

I see a picture right now that’s not parallel, so I’m going to go straighten it. Things must be in order.

– Katherine Johnson

In 2016, 20th Century Fox released the movie Hidden Figures,” chronicling the story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three intellectually gifted African-American mathematicians. Together, they worked behind the scenes at NASA to successfully launch Friendship 7, which in 1962 secured astronaut John Glenn’s place in history as the first American to orbit the earth.

The incredible achievement of these women went unrecognized in the shadow of America’s achievement. Their story is even more extraordinary when you consider that they overcame not only gender barriers in the field of mathematics and science, but the more formidable barriers that existed for African-Americans during one of the most tumultuous and racially-charged times in our nation’s history.

Ms. Johnson in particular overcame another barrier decades earlier when she became the first African-American woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University. That was in 1939, when only one percent of the already meager number of females in college were black. Today, African-American women account for 13% of the female population and 64 percent of all African-American enrollments.

But progress, limited or otherwise, can often come at a price. During the decades since Ms. Johnson’s time on campus, substance abuse in college students and the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism for stress by college women has become well-understood. And while it is conceivable that black women who matriculate to our campuses experience some of the same stressors as all college women, they likely also encounter additional, often hidden, pressures as a result of their lived experiences.

Substance abuse in college students has been widely discussed but specific challenges for black women in today’s college settings range from increased social anxiety brought on by the need to be, as Ms. Johnson was, the only one or the first one,” to PTSD as a result of trauma brought on by experiencing racism, incivility, and other injustices. This provides important context for research on stress in college students, identifying that black college women endorse more perceived stress and depressive symptoms than their white female peers. Additionally, difficulties in identifying a therapist that is culturally competent leaves many black women to suffer the effects of stress on college students  alone in silence, potentially turning to substance use a coping mechanism.

Brianna Reddick, a student at Wake Forest University, recently provided insight into these realities in an article for the Nation. In heartbreaking detail, she recounts her experience as a black college woman and social activist and the eventual toll that her desire to be a force for change took on her mental health. In considering her return to campus this past fall, she writes, “I will continue to work to address systemic racism at my school, but I’ll also consider the impact activism has on me. I plan to be selective about my engagement, in order to guard my mental health.”

So, how do campuses help students like Brianna to navigate the unique issues they face and that can ultimately lead to use of substances as a response to stress? Substance abuse prevention programs for college students must take into account the unique perspective of black college women and it starts by asking the right questions. Below are 7 questions that campus prevention professionals can ask in order to begin the process of developing programs and policies that recognize and acknowledge the unique prevention needs of black college women:

Why is it important to address this issue on our campus?

How might the intersection of race and gender play a role in the experiences of black college going women on our campus?

What institutional structures can potentially contribute to the alcohol usage of black women on our campus?

How does mental health and the cultural complexities surrounding mental health treatment impact alcohol and other drug usage among this population?

Are there successful interventions or programs currently being used on our campus that can be adapted to this population?

What survey data, or other measures currently exist that can be used to help identify the nature and extent of this challenge on our campus?

What existing offices, departments, or working groups can we collaborate with on our campus to begin understanding and addressing the needs of black women?

The picture is still not parallel, but we can begin to straighten it by asking the right questions, seeking to understand, and deciding to respond in a culturally sensitive and knowledgeable way to the unique needs of this vulnerable population.