Multiethnic students may be at a higher risk for stress

Natalie Spray

Brook Bishop understands W.E.B. DuBois’ theory of “double consciousness” — the feeling of living in two worlds at once — quite well.

Bishop, who is part black and part white, grew up in Dana — a primarily white community. Like other multiethnic students at Iowa State, she says she sometimes struggles with her identity.

“Everybody sees me as black, but culturally I’m white,” explained Bishop, sophomore in psychology.

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health this week suggested multiethnic students in middle and high school are at a higher risk than single-race students for stress-related health problems.

“It did not matter what races the student identified with; the risks were higher for all of them if they did not identify with a single race,” said Dr. J. Richard Udry, the primary author of the study.

The survey of 90,000 students did not seek to explain why these teenagers experience more emotional and health issues — such as depression, inability to sleep and underage smoking and drinking — but a common explanation is a struggle with identity formation, said Udry, professor of maternal and child health at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health.

This trend can be seen on the surveys, as students gave different answers about their race at different times.

Todd Herriott, program coordinator in the Dean of Students Office, said he believes there are difficulties associated with being multiethnic at all levels of education.

“Any time a person denies a part of who they are, that situation has a negative impact on their mental health,” he said.

College students may experience the same emotional stress as the middle and high school students surveyed, but may deal with the issue in a different way, such as immersing themselves into school work or blocking out the “other half,” Herriott said.

Herriott also noted college students drink and/or smoke to relieve stress, although he did not believe this was a significant problem at Iowa State.

“In middle and high school [those activities] are illegal,” he said. “At college, it’s making a poor health decision.”

In some instances, students at Iowa State are forced to choose one ethnicity instead of more than one.

When students apply for admission, they are told to check only one box for the ethnicity portion of the form. There is a push to deny a part of who that student is, Herriott said.

“It creates a sense of ‘Why can’t I be all of who I am?’,” Herriott said.

Students at Iowa State have formed a group, called Identifying as M.E., or multiethnic. It was designed to deal with issues of being multiethnic on the ISU campus and was formed after the issue was raised at the Iowa State Conference on Race and Ethnicity last academic year, said Herriott, who also serves as the group’s adviser.

The ISU campus promotes joining ethnic groups, but this new group better suites students of more than one background, said Amanda Berenguel, one of the group’s co-presidents.

Bishop said it felt strange for her to go to meetings of the Black Student Alliance.

“I didn’t fit in — I’m not black,” she said. “I identify with whatever I feel that day.”

People who support inter-racial dating or who are just curious about other cultures are also welcome to the group, said Berenguel, junior in child, adult and family services.

“It’s about finding a place to feel comfortable and explore further what your culture means to you,” Herriott said.

Herriott said people sometimes act on visual perceptions that can be inaccurate.

“Ultimately, each person is unique and should be treated as such,” he said.

— The Associated Press contributed to this article.