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You know better than most that the students in your college classrooms today are more anxious and overwhelmed than ever. Statistics back up this claim. According to the American College Health Association (ACHA), about 60% of respondents felt overwhelming anxiety, while 40% experienced depression so severe they had difficulty functioning. A Pennsylvania State University study noted that demand for campus mental health services spiked by 30 to 40% during a period that saw only a 5% increase in enrollment.
Mood disturbances represent only some of the prevalent mental health issues experienced by college students. Others include serious problems like suicide, eating disorders and addiction. Mental health professionals stress the importance of talking about such issues, but students tend to consider the more minor mood disturbances a normal part of college life. In other cases, they may lack the time, energy, will and/or money to seek the support they need.
To their credit, colleges across the U.S. are responding with a broad range of awareness campaigns, expanded counseling services, and cultivating training and peer support. It’s clear that counseling centers alone are not enough. In fact, the average university has one professional counselor for every 1,737 students. “It’s a very different job than it was 10 years ago,” says Lisa Adams Somerlot, President of the American College Counseling Association.
Now it’s time for those who already play a vital role in the development of students — those of you who are professors — to get even more involved.
Of course, there are limits to what you can do, as well as the support you can offer to students who talk to you about problems with their mental health. Some of these limits will be set by college administrators and others will be legal limitations around confidentiality. Faculty members are not trained counsellors and psychiatrists. So, while it can be hard to avoid giving advice or getting overly involved with a struggling student, it is important not to cross into areas where you have little to no training. Find out exactly what your college expects of you and the processes it has in place to support students with mental health issues. It is important not to offer help that is beyond your role and to be clear with the student about your boundaries.
That said, faculty are in a position to witness the demeanor of students, week in and week out. You are in a position to spot rising absenteeism and declining performance, to recognize signs that a student is struggling or that something isn’t right. And you often have a critical role in a student’s feelings of self-worth.
Many faculty members are happy to embrace this additional responsibility, even though spotting personal struggles and taking action isn’t usually in the job description. And, intervening doesn’t come easily. But here’s the reality: the classroom is the one place every student shows up, whether it’s in-person or virtual, and it might well be the place where we can turn the tide of mental health on campus.
Preparation can help, and most colleges are offering just that. For example, the University of Michigan publishes online advice to faculty, covering dozens of common student mental health scenarios and how to handle them. The university also invites faculty to consult, one on one, with a professional counselor for additional guidance. At Georgia Tech, a new guide to identifying and dealing with a student in distress went out to all faculty members at the beginning of the fall semester. The University of Colorado Boulder trains faculty to support student resiliency and has developed a values statement that clearly communicates to students that the faculty and staff are there for them.
TimelyMD suggests all campuses embrace these sorts of ideas. Here are a few ways colleges and universities can engage faculty in this crucial effort:
Encourage faculty members to build skills through training programs.
The program Question. Persuade. Refer. (QPR) prepares participants to recognize the warning signs of suicide, to know how to offer hope, and to get help for the person in crisis. At Georgia Tech, QPR, as well as other training, is available anytime by request to departments or schools and to the entire campus community several times each semester through the Tech Ends Suicide Together initiative.
Talk about student mental health at new faculty orientation.
Such a dialogue provides initial guidance on what faculty may experience in the classroom and what resources are available to them. The University of Connecticut created the Connection Is Prevention program to help new faculty understand the continuum of student distress, spot students in trouble, and respond.
Continue the conversation through faculty mentoring programs.
The University of Michigan Dearborn has a robust program in which seasoned professors provide guidance and counsel to less experienced faculty on a wide range of topics, including student mental health issues. A checklist of best practices for these mentoring sessions includes discussions about teaching issues and advising students.
Remove disincentives that prevent faculty members from taking an active role.
Some faculty members are uncomfortable adding a mental health dimension to their classrooms. Leaders must continue to raise awareness among their colleagues and provide resources that reduce these friction points. For example, the University of Wisconsin Madison provides faculty with a syllabus statement about mental health as well as sample emails and tips for talking about suicide in the classroom.
While professors cannot and should not take on the full responsibility for fixing what some believe has become a national epidemic, it’s critical that faculty — the integral individuals at the front of the classroom — join existing efforts to improve student well-being and be involved in creating new ones. We encourage faculty to make student mental health a priority and to implement programs and tactics that engage their peers in the essential work of helping students thrive.
TimelyMD is doing just that, and we’re committed to finding new and innovative ways to care for student health and wellness. Our mission is to improve the well-being of college students by making virtual medical and mental health care accessible anytime, anywhere, and we’re proud to come alongside colleges and universities to help support their students. If you’re interested in learning how telehealth can help your campus thrive, let’s get the conversation started.
Faculty play an influential role in helping students cope with the rigors of education and achieve their full potential. This capitalizes on the talent within campuses and strategically brings together every resource for the common good.
Together, we can make a positive difference in student well-being.