Acculturation: A Black Student’s Mental Health Experience
Exploring the emotional and mental toll of social isolation & othering from the perspective of a Black International University Student.
This article is written by McMaster student Lilainie Akosua Adjei-Addo.
Content Warning: Mental Health, Mental Illness, Depression
When I hear the term “person of colour” or “Black,” there’s a number of images that run through my mind; from an intelligent person navigating new spaces and building themselves into their best version or even a group of mothers cooking outside in the harmattan night-time.
To be Black to me means to have a defining cultural story, and this article, is mine.
I spent most of my childhood in my family home in Ghana. I was raised in a community of people who looked like me and shared similar morals as me. As a child, this was the representation of the world in my eyes. Lucky for me, I was privileged enough to come from a higher socioeconomic status family, and I had many opportunities to learn and enrich my perspectives as I grew older. My parents love to travel and would often take my sister and I on a majority of their trips. We got to experience other cultures and learn very quickly at an early age the amount of diversity we are surrounded by. These trips often gave me the opportunity to interact with people that looked like me but grew up in a different environment and it made me realize that my Black experience wasn’t theirs.
In 2019, I made the pivotal life decision to move out of Ghana and complete my education in Canada. Before I left, I was sat down by family members and close family friends and was given a great talking to as per tradition. A lot of the recurring themes in this was not to forget who I was and to always remember where I came from as well as stay true to my roots. As a young girl this somewhat made sense to me, but I never really understood the value of the advice until I made it here. I was fortunate enough to be attending an international student boarding school, so I still had some sense of familiarity even though I was constantly being exposed to new cultures, ways of thinking and out looks on life as a whole. I’ve always been independent and brave, ready to take on any challenge. I loved the idea of navigating this on my own and getting a feel of what it was like to exist in a world that I was unfamiliar with.
Between that time and when I started at McMaster, I met a lot of people I connected with and loved, but as time went on there was a daunting feeling of imposter syndrome I couldn’t shake off. I started to feel out of place, especially in social situations because I felt I was so different. This made my first two years at university a bit tough to navigate. Yes, in a room full of Black people I did blend in physically but when it came to interacting with others my experience was always different. One thing that set me apart is my accent. All my life I’ve had to adapt and switch up the way I spoke to be able to blend in and be understood. An example was when I had to adjust the way I spoke to be better understood when I moved from Virginia to Ghana. Blending in is never easy but sometimes it’s easier to be a part of the crowd than to stick out like a sore thumb. My mental health experience has been a rollercoaster; the insecurities, anxieties and fear that come from being the “other” in the crowd often take a toll on a person. For me, something I’ve had to deal with that has had great lengths on my mental health is the ignorant comments that come in the form of jokes and discriminatory comments. A prime example being, I once told someone where I was from and the response, I got was a joke asking, “how did you learn to speak English so well”. While not all people are ill intentioned, instances like this contribute to me and other international students feeling that the best way to ‘blend in’ is to be an inauthentic version of ourselves, ultimately performing a role that makes others notice our differences less.
I am forever grateful for the community I have around me right now. The great friends I’ve made and even the faculty that support me through my educational career mean the world to me. But I must say it wasn’t always like this. During my first year especially, I experienced a lot of depression which manifested into terrible grades and a lot of self-loathing. A lot of this stemmed from me feeling socially isolated. I found it difficult to make friends and build a social support network. A main reason for all this was because school was online so I couldn’t connect with people – just screens. This was amplified by the fact that the friends I already had were not a part of my new journey at university. I truly felt alone. As someone who also didn’t have a close relationship with my parents, I had to learn to juggle my depression by myself and seek out the help I needed as I was reaching dangerous lows in terms of my mental state and didn’t want to become a harm to myself. In my culture mental health conversations feel like a taboo and as a child especially your issues are often dismissed as “just a phase” and unimportant compared to that of an adult – if it’s even acknowledged. Many African parents do not have a clear understanding of what mental health issues are and how they can affect individuals.
Education became a symbol of resistance and liberation in African homes and is highly valued and seen as a means of social mobility and economic advancement. Many African parents view education as the key to their children’s future success and make significant sacrifices to ensure that their children receive the best education money can pay for. For me, this pressure to succeed was yet another cause of crippling anxiety. I am driven to always do better than my best and while I value this trait as it has always made me a go getter and someone with great initiative, it often doesn’t allow for me to rest or take any breaks. I feel a heavy sense of guilt for even taking mental health days as it intensifies my fear of failure of falling behind my peers. Logically, I know I take a lot of pro-active steps to continue to be my best self, but the value placed on education in my family and in African cultures weighs on me emotionally.
I could go on about the many things that make up my experience, but I want to shine a light on how I continue to overcome my mind and the external factors that shape me and my life’s decisions. One thing I’m continuously learning to do is accepting situations for what they are and seeking the help I need to overcome them. I do this by going for counselling sessions offered to me by the Student Wellness Centre at McMaster. Another thing I’ve been implementing, though it’s hard to stick to, is taking rest days and practicing self-care activities, such as exercise, meditation, or hobbies. I would also say being involved in support groups such as “The Black X-Scape” and continuously building community at the Black Student Success Centre has also been a great asset in grounding me mentally. Lastly, setting realistic goals for myself is something I thrive to do better at. So far it has helped me break down large tasks into smaller, manageable steps and a reflection of it can be seen in my study plans, the way I prioritize tasks, and use time-management tools to stay organized and focused.
The SWC is here for you! At some point just about everyone finds they have major concerns on their mind that may interfere with their success, happiness, and satisfaction at university. Often, students mention that a helpful way of dealing with problematic situations and feelings is to start by talking them through with an experienced counsellor. You can book your initial appointment with a counsellor by calling 905-525-9140 x 27700.
Additional Support & Resources for Black Students
Student Assistance Plan: The MSU Student Assistance Program (SAP) is a benefit provided at no cost to all undergraduate McMaster students. The program is free, confidential, voluntary and accessible for McMaster students, their roommates and immediate family members. The SAP, available 24/7 through multi-lingual calls, online chats, or texts, provides on-demand counselling with mental health experts, as well as professional consultation in the areas of nutrition, academic success, life skills, legal affairs, and more. Call or Text 1-888-377-0002 to be connected directly with our SAP provider.
Empower Me (Graduate Students): No issues are too big or small. Request support for depression, anxiety, grief, relationship problems, adjusting to life in a new country, addictions, mild substance abuse, educational conflict, disordered eating, and more. Though Empower Me, counselors are completely qualified to support students in crisis. What’s great about Empower Me is that you don’t need to be in crisis in order to take advantage of their services. You could speak to a life coach about subjects like personal performance, well-being and growth, career, relationships, and finances. Call 1 (833) 628-5589 (toll-free) from anywhere in North America to be directly connected to the Empower Me Clinical Response Center.
Life Events, Mental Health & Mental Illness, Mindfulness & Relaxation