Saturday, December 9, 2023

Student mental health clubs prioritize culture and community to combat stigma

November 15, 2023
Neuroscience and physiology sophomore and We are SAATH club secretary Manasi Kulkarni during a “Dialogue Night” meeting at the Minskoff Pavilion on Nov. 14, 2023. During the meeting, they discussed their personal stories dealing with mental health.
Neuroscience and physiology sophomore and We are SAATH club secretary Manasi Kulkarni during a “Dialogue Night” meeting at the Minskoff Pavilion on Nov. 14, 2023. During the meeting, they discussed their personal stories dealing with mental health. —
Photo by Sonya Barlow | The State News

Several student organizations at Michigan State University have been created with the mission of supporting students' mental health struggles. At a predominately white institution like MSU, some of these clubs are dedicated specifically to underrepresented student communities.

According to the Office of the Registrar's university enrollment data, in the 2023 fall semester, 64.4% of the student population is white. In a majority white population, students of color face a unique struggle finding and connecting with peers who share their cultural experiences related to mental health.

Computer science sophomore Bailey Parker said that carving out space for community connection is vital for the mental health of students who may feel like there is nowhere to express themselves safely. Parker is a member of Sistas That Care, a club focused on mental health for Black women.

"Being at a (predominantly white institution) faces its ultimate challenges just being a Black woman," Parker said. "We're coming together as a community to talk about those things because we honestly don't have anywhere else to go on campus, especially in a community that is not really built for us."

Sistas That Care is one of several mental health organizations dedicated to specific communities. Also included in the category are Spartan Shifa, dedicated to serving the MSU Muslim community, and WE ARE SAATH MSU, which targets the university's South Asian community.

Sistas That Care

Sistas That Care is a new student organization, officially registered this year, with the goal of creating a sisterhood for Black women to focus on their mental health and engage in community service. Parker said she joined the group because of the safe space it provides Black women to talk about their unique mental health experiences. 

Some of these shared experiences include not seeing Black female professors or students inside classrooms, feeling like opportunities were distributed unequally because of identity and overall feeling unrepresented on campus, Parker said.

The Sistas Who Care team take a group picture.

Communication senior Kennedy Hairston said Sistas That Care is a "game-changer" for many students who have struggled with feeling seen at Michigan State. She said feeling connected to your community plays a significant role in someone's mental health.

"I've met people this year that have told me that even though they've been at MSU for a long time, in their past years, they felt very alone, like they didn't have a community," Hairston said. "Having a community of people who you can relate to and who you can genuinely be yourself with is a major game changer in feeling seen and feeling heard and feeling valued."

Beyond discussing ways that members have experienced mental health at MSU, psychology senior Chamyia Elmoore said the club breaks down barriers that were often put up within families over the discussion of mental health. She said that for her and many of her peers, mental health was an off-limits topic growing up.

"It's important for us to just have a space to know that mental health isn't an issue; it's okay to talk about it here," Elmoore said. "Within our community here, there's space here for Black women to be able to talk about it and discuss."

Hairston said she loves working with Sistas That Care to not only improve their own mental health but to be able to positively give back to those around them.

The Sistas Who Care group are active in community service across Lansing.

"Being there for each other and filling up our own cups allows us to be able to fill up the cups around us in the community," Hairston said.

Spartan Shifa

Spartan Shifa also recently became registered as its own organization after a few years of working within the Muslim Student Association, talking about the stigmatization of mental health. The club's goal is to create space for Muslim students to connect over shared experiences and feel safe to be vulnerable about their mental health.

Psychology junior Zainab Mehdi said Shifa has a mission, unlike any clubs she had seen before. She got involved and eventually became the lead facilitator because of the club's dedication to having difficult conversations that are often ignored within Muslim communities.

Spartan Shifa discusses the complexities of "hustle culture" at a club meeting.

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From topics like the toxicity of hustle culture to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, Zainab said one important feature of the club is that they tackle a variety of issues at different levels. 

"A lot of our community that comes are either immigrants themselves or, the children of immigrants, a lot of first-gen or second-gen Americans," Zainab said. "So we have a lot of these collective shared experiences we're able to be open and vulnerable about together because we don't really have other spaces to really talk about these things and these issues that we go through."

Zainab said a lot of Muslim students have also faced a cultural dismissal of mental health problems. Shifa fosters a community that can connect over the struggle of balancing cultural and religious values with living in the United States, Zainab said.

"Navigating life as a Muslim in America and in the year of 2023, it's really complicated and complex now," Zainab said. "Trying to stay true to our morals and our values that we do care (about) so deeply, but it can kind of be difficult to do that. So that's why I think it's so important to have this platform for the Muslim community here."

Because attending Michigan State means being far from home for many students, Spartan Shifa provides a connection to the Muslim faith and culture that can be strained at college, Zainab said. 

"Coming together with other Muslims and having these conversations, it keeps us connected to our origin and to our roots and further cultivates that," Zainab said. "That's also really nice and really, really important attending a PWI such as MSU."

Spartan Shifa sits to hear a lecture on mental health issues.


The name WE ARE SAATH uses the Hindi word "saath," meaning together, to promote the club’s mission of coming together for mental health awareness. The organization targets the South Asian population at MSU. However, it is open to all communities that want to break down the stigma against mental health, club president and nursing senior Umme Hoque said.

Hoque joined WE ARE SAATH during her junior year because exploring and talking about mental health as a South Asian woman is important to her. She took on a leadership role after discovering a passion for creating safe spaces for mental health exploration for her peers.

"In my community, mental health isn't very explored, it's not talked about, and it's also a stigma," Hoque said. "I knew that I wanted more people to also have a safe space to talk about mental health and discover parts of themselves because it's not encouraged in our community."

Human biology and dietetics senior and We are SAATH club treasurer Sruti Mathi during a “Dialogue Night” meeting at the Minskoff Pavilion on Nov. 14, 2023. During the meeting, they discussed their personal stories dealing with mental health.

Hoque said that because of the stigma against mental health in South Asian communities, having a space to acknowledge mental health is an important first step for students seeking to better themselves.

She said many people in her parent's generation often write off mental health as "craziness" and breaking down this belief is a priority in the new generation.

"For the new generation, if we introduce this topic and bring safe space and create a safe space for them to be vulnerable, that they could at least acknowledge this important issue that they have for themselves," Hoque said. "Even in my personal life, I can see how the stigma has affected members of my family around it, where it's limited their ability to reach out and get help."

Hoque said that many other communities face a similar stigma, which is why she and the rest of the organization encourage connection across communities to further fight against the stigma.

Nursing senior and We are SAATH club president Umme Hoque smiles during a “Dialogue Night” meeting at the Minskoff Pavilion on Nov. 14, 2023. During the meeting, they discussed their personal stories dealing with mental health.

Fostering community connections is essential to better mental health because it creates a sense of belonging, Hoque said. She said bringing together like-minded people who care about mental health can help combat feelings of alienation that students may feel in other areas of their lives.

"It's also important to see that there are people of your own community that also prioritize this topic," Hoque said. "That's why I think having a community-based mental health organization is very impactful for individuals in that specific community. You can see that there are others who look like you … who practice the same culture as you, who also reach out and who are aware of their mental health issues."


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