How professors can support students’ mental health (opinion)
When I was a graduate student, my generalized anxiety settled into an onerous depression. I did not tell anyone at the university until a professor passed around index cards in class and instructed, “Write down anything you’d like me to know.” I took a deep breath and wrote that I was exhausted and having trouble concentrating. Then I handed in the card.
And then, silence. My professor never acknowledged my note. Perhaps understandably so — many students are exhausted and have trouble concentrating, and for many, that’s not a sign of a larger problem.
Even so, the silence hurt. I felt embarrassed and exposed.
Luckily, I sought professional help on my own. My symptoms improved, and I finished the semester. But many students, graduate and undergraduate alike, do not have the resources I had. And many students’ mental health struggles turn fatal.
I finished my graduate degree and started a new academic position during the pandemic, and my transition from student status to faculty status during COVID-19 has illuminated the extent to which graduate and undergraduate students struggle with mental health. Because I have experienced this pandemic both as a graduate student and as a faculty member, my closeness to the student experience guides how I interact with my students who disclose mental health issues.
Now, as a college professor, I cannot be silent. In the midst of a global pandemic, it’s clear to me that college professors may need to shift our mind-sets and become much more a part of students’ network of care. College and university professors aren’t mental health experts, but we are humans, and it’s crucial that we talk to our students — as human to human.
We can care for students by having conversations with students about mental health, modeling help-seeking and self-care behaviors, and approaching coursework and grading with flexibility. I trust we can do this work, especially if we are trained to do so.
It’s vital that we act now. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that colleges and universities must do more to support their students’ mental health. According to a Student Voice survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse and presented by Kaplan, 65 percent of students surveyed reported having fair or poor mental health a year after the pandemic began. Yet of these students, only 15 percent had engaged in mental health services over the past year.
Many factors contribute to the rate of students using campus mental health services. For instance, continuing stigmas about counseling may prevent students from seeking help, leaving counseling centers underutilized. Further, students may perceive, often correctly, that their on-campus mental health services are overbooked and inaccessible. My students regularly report long wait lists to be seen by a counselor at our campus health center. Even students who see a counselor immediately may not have access to regular, consistent counseling.
My own experience with seeking mental health support from my university resulted in a six-month wait from October 2020 until April 2021. To be clear, the wait list was to meet a counselor through my university’s medical system, not the student counseling service. Further, as a professor with medical insurance, I could have sought out private counseling, beyond the university’s system. But while I decided to endure this wait, for students and those with inadequate insurance, six months is six months too long.
Moreover, not all students are comfortable talking to a therapist. Students are struggling, and professional mental health services are simultaneously underutilized and overburdened.
A Key Part of Support Networks
While students wait for their universities to adequately respond to their mental health needs, what can faculty do for them, if anything? A study from Boston University’s School of Public Health, the Mary Christie Foundation and the Healthy Minds Network argues that faculty are “gatekeepers” of student mental health, meaning that we can identify signs of mental health issues and learn to refer students to resources. The study found that 79 percent of faculty members report reaching out to students about their mental health and wellness. Further, the Student Voice survey found that students say they relied on their college professors at the same rate they rely on campus health services for support during COVID-19.
Taken together, this research makes a compelling argument that students need to be able to talk to their college professors about mental health. We need to learn how to talk to — and, most important, listen to — our struggling students.
This is the point in the conversation when college professors remind each other of several valid arguments: we aren’t counselors, we are overworked and we need structural change. Before we get too far, then, allow me to clarify with the following points.
Faculty should not replace professional mental health services. But we can work alongside professional services in at least four ways. We can:
Invite students to discuss their mental health concerns and empathetically listen within those conversations;
Model self-care and help-seeking behaviors;
Provide leeway for deadlines and assessment; and
Refer students to professional services (the gatekeeper model).
Faculty members should not be required to do more. But faculty members who wish to support their students should be empowered to do so.
Colleges and universities need structural change. It shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea to structure academics/work in a way that supports our health.
As a writing professor, I work in a discipline where students write about trauma, and the “we aren’t counselors” mantra was passed on to me early in my academic acculturation. I agree. But just because we aren’t counselors doesn’t mean that we can’t talk to our students about their lives and their mental health.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that college professors hold counseling sessions with their students. Rather, I am arguing that college professors can use some of the skills that professional counselors use: namely, empathetic listening. That might be as simple as displaying empathetic listening during a conversation while we also show students how to access professional mental health resources.
I am also aware that my call for faculty care is problematic in light of painful data that show emotional labor disproportionately affects women and may exasperate inequities many female professors face. It is worrisome that the Ithaka S+R COVID-19 faculty survey found that women who are caregivers find it more difficult than their male counterparts to manage their time and balance family and work responsibilities. But at the same time, as we fight to rebalance labor, we need to be cautious not to commodify our human duty to love and care for one another. In other words, though I want to be paid fairly for my emotional labor, as one colleague recently put it, compassion costs me nothing.
To be sure, faculty support of students on a case-by-case basis will not address the structural problems that have caused and exasperated the current mental health crisis. University administrators need to address those problems and improve student access to resources. But faculty are not only gatekeepers who can connect students to professional care. We are also part of students’ support networks — sometimes a really fundamental part.
Further, we need training both to perform gatekeeping duties and to have conversations with distressed students. Approximately half of faculty members say they know how to recognize a student in emotional distress, but far fewer say they’ve received training about how to recognize emotional distress and refer students to resources.
Even when college professors are trained to respond, the training often only focuses on how to refer students to other resources, such as the counseling center. For example, Title IX trainings tend to focus on professors’ legal duty to report sexual assault to campus Title IX coordinators, but we also need to know how to handle the conversation in which a survivor comes forward.
When we only focus on referring students to resources, we assume that our students are healthy enough to follow through and seek support. What about the student who isn’t healthy enough? What about the student for whom it took everything in them to ask their professor for help? Asking a professor for help may be a last effort, not a first effort. Instead of a quick referral email or worse — silence — faculty can empathize, listen, model and then refer. This is why college professors also need to know how to have conversations with students about mental health.
So, yes, we need major structural changes, such as those outlined by Sara Freuh, and increased resources to address the mental health crisis. In the meantime, we can tap in to our humanity and love to care for our students.
That does not mean requiring college professors to do, as John Warner worried, more work, but to approach our work differently. We are modeling something to our students, whether it’s workaholism, perfectionism or self-care/help-seeking behaviors, so let’s choose the latter. It means we respond to the students who disclose mental health struggles with empathy and compassion while also guiding them toward professional mental health support. That is not to say college professors are intentionally cold, simply that as we remind each other that we’re not counselors, we might also remind ourselves how to display compassion.
At the very least, we need to tell our students who, like me, divulge their struggles on an index card, “I see you. And I’m here to listen.”
Krista Speicher Sarraf (@Kayrista22) is a teaching assistant professor of English and SpeakWrite specialist at West Virginia University.
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