Devin Willis stood at the base of the Thomas Jefferson statue on the north side of the Rotunda. His arms were locked with the activists next to him as an angry mob carrying flaming tiki torches poured over the Rotunda steps last August at the University of Virginia. He covered his face to avoid being doxxed. They were surrounded. Trapped.
“At the end of the day, nothing could have prepared me for the real fear of dying. We were the first people to have an altercation with this group,” said Willis, a 19-year-old black student majoring in political and social thought at UVA. “No one really knew how violent they intended to be.”
Despite the trauma of that Friday night, Willis still participated in the counterdemonstrations in downtown Charlottesville on Saturday, where a white supremacist drove his car through a crowd, injuring dozens and killing Heather Heyer.
For much of the nation, the “Unite the Right” demonstrations that gripped Charlottesville in August were examples of racial extremism. They were ugly but distant. A hashtag. For black students at the University of Virginia, these events were personal—an explosion of racism on their campus—just weeks before they returned for fall classes.
For Devin Willis, it began the deterioration of his mental health. “I just went through August 12 as if nothing had happened the night before,” Willis said.
Even as the academic year draws to a close, black students at UVA are still grappling with the trauma of witnessing a massive demonstration of racism so close to home, and many question if the university is doing enough to help them cope.
All UVA students have access to the Department of Student Health Counseling and Psychological Services, known as CAPS. Nicole Ruzek, the director of CAPS, said it held a number of outreach efforts to support the UVA community after the white-supremacist rally on campus. Eight support groups were offered to students, including one specifically created as a response to August 11 and 12. Students who were present at the Rotunda on the night of August 11 were also given the opportunity to participate in a group crisis intervention—a discussion between a group of people affected by similar traumas with the goal of providing resources for the future—facilitated by a crisis-response team trained by the National Organization for Victim Assistance.
Some students feel these efforts are inadequate.
“I look back at my fall semester and the…tunnel vision I developed,” Willis recalled. “I didn’t want to take care of personal relationships, I didn’t want to sit in stupid classes that don’t mean anything. Then one day, I stopped trying to say I should not be upset. I allowed myself to suffer. That was the big watershed. All the emotions came.”
Willis said that was the first moment he cried about everything he had experienced. He described his emotions since the deadly protest as a mix of empowerment, stress, pride in those who did great things in the midst of controversy, and frustration and disappointment in the stakeholders responsible for what happened.
Willis’s experience of emotional breakthrough came months after the initial trauma. This is not uncommon. A 2012 study that examined racial discrimination and mental health across blacks, Asians, and Hispanics found that blacks reported a “significantly higher degree” of perceived racism. Nine percent of the black respondents said they have experienced symptoms of post-traumatic-stress disorder, while only 6 percent of Hispanics and 1 percent of Asians said the same.
This left Willis feeling that although CAPS offered immediate crisis support, that support was not appropriate for the long-term challenge of addressing racial trauma. Willis indicated he only heard about one support group. It was offered in September, long before he was ready to talk about what happened.
Yuma Tomes, a psychology professor at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and eastern regional representative on the Association of Black Psychologists’ National Board, said access to mental-health care is imperative for black people to deal with race-related trauma in a healthy way.
“We may have been taught particular strategies that were unhealthy, and then, as a result, that was then construed by others as being aggressive or as being not productive,” Tomes said. “But we didn’t have access or we chose not to get access.”
Not only is access to mental-health care important, but Tomes noted that who is providing that care can be significant as well. When black students are receiving mental-health care from black counselors, the two parties can connect based on similar and shared experiences.
“Especially when they enter into a primarily white institution, for other individuals that are psychologists that have attended a primarily white institution, that provides another voice or another outlet for them to connect or resonate with on that level,” Tomes said.
Willis did see a counselor at CAPS, but reports, “I didn’t have the fortune of getting a black professional, and I didn’t realize it bothered me until the guy brought it up,” Willis said. “A lot of the psychological factors that can weigh on a person of color’s mental health have to do with racialized realities. I know that I kind of feel uncomfortable being vulnerable with a white person sometimes.”
There are three black clinicians at CAPS, out of a staff of 17. Prior to 2004, CAPS had only one black clinician. There are currently 1,395 black undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at UVA—and only three counselors to serve them.
Tomes suggested a few healthy ways to cope with racial trauma—seek assistance once it is beyond the individual’s control, find outlets for expression, and form strong bonds and relationships with others, especially those who may have similar experiences. Colleges can help, too, by providing more support groups and better training in student-counseling centers to adequately address these types of issues. However, Tomes believes a curriculum that positively portrays people of color can be just as effective.
“Where do we see African Americans or people of color reflected in positive ways in the curriculum?” Tomes questioned. “We need to work with the faculty on making sure we provides the necessary pedagogy to be supportive to individuals of color in the classroom and infuse that into the curriculum.”