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story.lead_photo.caption Dr. Stacia Alexander leads the incoming freshmen in an exercise on June 27 during their Summer Bridge at Paul Quinn College in Dallas. The college is focusing on student well-being by normalizing mental health discussions and offering a wide range of services through a partnership with UT Southwestern. Photo by Shaban Athuman

DALLAS—Paul Quinn College prides itself as a school that aggressively recruits the kids often ignored by big-name universities:

Students who grew up in tough Chicago neighborhoods where it is common to lose a classmate to gang violence. Children from Los Angeles to New York to South Dallas who struggle to break the cycle of poverty.

Dr. Stacia Alexander leads the incoming freshmen in an exercise on June 27 during their Summer Bridge at Paul Quinn College in Dallas. The college is focusing on student well-being by normalizing mental health discussions and offering a wide range of services through a partnership with UT Southwestern.
Photo by Shaban Athuman

And those students do well. At first.

But inevitably, too many fail as they wrestle with the trauma stirring within them.

So now Paul Quinn has launched an aggressive mental health campaign in an effort to help every student on campus be successful not only in school, but also in life.

Every single incoming student is asked to meet with a counselor to have their needs assessed. An on-site mental health clinic is free of charge. And wellness is promoted all across campus through education programs, exercise activities and even comedy nights.

As the clinic's director Dr. Stacia' Alexander summed it up during this summer's orientation when she gave each student her cell number:

"We're here for you," she said to about 130 freshmen and transfer students. "For whatever feelings you struggle with—with whatever you hide from everybody else that you think means nothing, that you think makes you out of your mind. We are here to talk to you about those feelings."

Just a few years ago, the historically black college in southern Dallas had one of the lowest graduation rates in the nation—so low that had to be rounded up just to hit 1%.

Academic debates would sometimes deteriorate into yelling matches. Roommate disagreements could quickly escalate to fist fights. And it was common for juniors to self sabotage themselves to delay—or even derail—graduation.

President Michael Sorrell was at a loss as to why.

"We thought we were doing good," Sorrell said. " 'We're bringing you out of that environment and you'll be safe. And life will be great.' It took us a while to understand that that was a product of trauma."

Those living in poverty are about twice as likely to suffer from mental illnesses, according to a 2016 federal report.

Depression, anxiety and fear can build up when children are exposed to experiences such as watching a loved one die from gun violence, suffering from physical or sexual abuse, or even being homeless. Personal safety and security can be a constant worry.

The traditional college stresses—the pressure to succeed, being on your own for the first time—can trigger the trauma lingering just below the surface, said Michael Lindsey, a mental health researcher and executive director the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at New York University.

"And if you're a first-generation college student, there's a lot of pressure on you to overcome the odds and succeed in the face of adversity," Lindsey said. "Your mere presence in college reflects that, so there's reticence to be connected to treatment."

Lindsey serves on the Congressional Black Caucus' taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health. It has been working to address the climbing suicide rates of children of color, particularly among teenage boys.

It is challenging to connect many black youths to treatment with African Americans receiving counseling at much lower rates than their peers, Lindsey said. Many turn to their churches or families instead of professional treatment because they often see it as a sign of weakness, he said.

And it's easier for children of color to go undiagnosed when experiencing depression because it often manifests itself as anger and irritability. Black and Hispanic boys in particular are more likely to get kicked out of school for outbursts rather than to be identified as students who need help, Lindsey noted.

That's why Paul Quinn's campus-wide approach is unique and inspiring, Lindsey said.

About five years ago, Sorrell turned to professionals at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center for help. They were quick to realize that students' behaviors were classic signs of post traumatic stress disorder.

Professionals and residents from the medical center would spend a few hours a week on campus, giving students with mental health screenings and offering what counseling they could.

Dr. Jessica Moore was a psychiatry resident with UT Southwestern three years ago when she and others from the medical center would spend about two hours once a week on campus meeting with students. After a brief break, Moore is back at the school periodically this summer and will spend at least one full day a week at the campus when the school year starts in August.

Moore said working at Paul Quinn has taught her just how open to mental health discussions this generation can be once the conversations get going. She recalled her own college experience as one where the subject was rarely discussed outside of related lessons.

"The students are good at letting us know the things that they need," Moore said. "They are quick to say, 'OK, we need to talk about trauma or peer relationships or stress management.' And then we all work on an event or program to address that."

Paul Quinn officials quickly saw the positive impact that the mental health support was having on the campus community and wanted to do more to meet the need. A grant from Gov. Greg Abbott's office allowed the school to launch the mental health clinic this past school year and hire Alexander.

Alexander said the goal is to normalize mental health and treatment.

Much of the year has been spent meeting with student groups and holding community events on campus to stress how mental health is about more than just counseling. Paul Quinn has had Zumba classes, therapy dogs and even a comedy night to highlight how everything from exercise to relationships to laughter can impact how you're feeling.

And along the hallway to the clinic in the student center are posters of Beyoncé, Martin Lawrence and other celebrities who have been open about their struggles with mental illnesses.

Students can sign up for appointments or walk in, as needed. The clinic even offers group discussions—one for men and one for women—for those more comfortable talking in peer settings.

And talking isn't even necessary. Alexander recalled one day when a student walked in saying she just needed to cry. The young woman grabbed a blanket and curled up on the couch for 15 minutes.

The counselor never knew why the girl was upset because she didn't bring it up again, not even in their therapy session the next day.

Paul Quinn, which has about 500 students, credits the school's focus on mental health as well as other support efforts for starting to turn around the college's academics. Officials admit there's still a long way to go.

The most recent federal graduation rate shows Paul Quinn at 19%—near the bottom among Texas schools. That was for the 2017 school year, just as the mental health support efforts were starting to take off.

Meanwhile, at the recent June orientation, Alexander stressed how taking care of your mental health is just as important as going to the dentist or eye doctor for routine maintenance.

She and other counselors repeatedly talked about the need for safe spaces; how to seek healthy relationships; how common it is to feel impostor syndrome when you first get to college; and how important it is to get help for a friend when you notice something is wrong.

Many of the freshmen appeared to be guarded at first, unsure how to take Alexander even when she encouraged them to text her.

But in the following weeks, her cellphone would light up regularly—even as late as midnight—with questions from students who wanted to chat about a problem or set up appointments.

"The thing we're trying to get students to understand is that those traumas are real," Alexander said. "And they do impair or affect how you process daily information. And if you continue to ignore that, you're going to continue to be impaired and not reach your full potential."

Freshman Mikayla Ezell said the focus on mental health seems an obvious extension of the school's "We Over Me" motto. Members of a community have to work together to take care of each other, which also means taking care of yourself for the betterment of all, she said.

"I know there are going to be days when I need to talk to someone," said Ezell, a psychology major from Chicago who hopes to become a counselor or psychiatric doctor. "And it feels good to know that my new family here at Paul Quinn won't judge me for it."

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