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New research shows eight out of 10 professors had one-on-one conversations with students about mental health during the last 12 months. But, less than 30% of faculty members were trained by their institutions for such discussions, showing the need for improvement in faculty responses to student mental health issues. So, how can higher ed faculty be better equipped to support student mental health and well-being?
A recent survey conducted by Mary Christie Institute and Boston University School of Public Health (with responses from 1,700 faculty members at 12 colleges with enrollment ranging from 2,000 to 20,000 students) revealed that faculty members with four to six years of experience are most comfortable discussing mental health issues with students. Faculty members with 10 to 15 years of experience are the least comfortable. The survey also revealed that 42% of professors with one year of experience agree that they’re aware of the mental health services at their institutions, compared with 80% of faculty with 15 or more years of experience.
Simply put, faculty members need more awareness of campus mental health resources and more training in how to respond to students experiencing mental health concerns or emotional distress — especially faculty who have been in the profession longer.
What training should faculty receive to support student mental health?
The Mary Christie Institute and Boston University survey confirms that faculty mental health gatekeeper training is needed. Gatekeeper training is defined as “programs designed to enhance an individual’s skills to recognize signs of emotional distress in other people and refer them to appropriate resources.” Unfortunately, only 29% of faculty have participated in any program like this. But the good news is three out of four faculty members welcome professional development on the topic of students’ mental health. In fact, 61% believe it should be mandatory.
One such program, Question, Persuade, and Refer (QPR) gatekeeper training for suicide prevention, is an educational program designed to teach gatekeepers the warning signs of a suicide crisis and how to respond.
The process follows three steps:
- Question the individual’s desire or intent regarding suicide.
- Persuade the person to seek and accept help.
- Refer the person to appropriate resources.
Faculty who complete QPR gatekeeper training improve their ability to identify when a student’s behavior or appearance is a sign of psychological distress, discuss the concern with a student, motivate a student to seek help, and discuss a referral to student health services and mental health support services.
In a panel discussion moderated by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Anna Gonzalez, vice president for student affairs at Harvey Mudd College, shared her institution’s approach to wellness and student engagement after shifting to online learning during the coronavirus pandemic. Harvey Mudd College, part of The Claremont Colleges consortium, pivoted quickly to provide access to telehealth services through TimelyMD. The school also used online student activities, direct outreach to individual students, and QPR gatekeeper suicide prevention training, which helped faculty identify at-risk students, understand the right questions to ask, and get the students connected to the right resources.
“Often times when students say, ’I’m so stressed,’ we’ve forgotten to ask students why they’re stressed,” said Gonzales. “It could be that they have a lot of homework, or maybe they haven’t slept in two days. Why is that?
“In those situations, a student would typically be connected to an in-person health care provider or counseling services, but because of the pandemic, that isn’t possible,” said Gonzalez. “As a community-based outreach program, QPR allows the institution to identify at-risk students both in and out of the classroom for that first-moment triage to the right resource.”
Additional gatekeeper training available for college and university educators includes At-Risk for University and College Faculty by Kognito and Mental Health First Aid.
Best practices for helping students, established by faculty during the pandemic
If COVID-19 taught higher education anything, it’s that faculty and staff members play an important role in creating learning environments that support student health and well-being, decrease anxiety, increase learning, and encourage help-seeking behavior.
Here are four best practices established by faculty to support college students:
1. Include a statement on mental health in the syllabus
Students find it helpful when faculty include a statement on mental health care in their course syllabi. It sets expectations, normalizes the need to seek help, and emphasizes the link between mental health and academic success. Including information for campus community resources, health centers, and national helplines like the Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK), Crisis Text Line (text 741741), and The Trevor Project to support LGBTQ youth, further removes barriers between students and support services.
2. Be open about your own struggles
Students need role models to learn how to cope with challenges and to recognize that seeking help is a sign of strength. When faculty members share their own experiences about struggles, failures, successes, and coping strategies, it fosters a climate that supports mental well-being. Some colleges and universities created programs to encourage faculty to speak out. For example, the Story of Failure initiative at Tulane University encourages students, staff, faculty, and alumni to share their own personal stories of failure and resilience. The project combines storytelling, events, programs, and academic skills coaching to motivate and support students as they experience setbacks that are a normal part of a rigorous education. These stories highlight for students that the road to meaningful and productive lives is often messy, frightening, uncertain, and unpredictable, but worthwhile with perseverance.
3. Establish class conditions that promote well-being, social connectedness, and a growth mindset
For example, faculty know that sleep is important to mental health and a small change to deadlines can reinforce good sleep habits. Coursework assignments can be due by 5:00 p.m., instead of midnight or 9:00 a.m. Of course, this change doesn’t guarantee students get the sleep they need, but faculty can avoid signaling an expectation that work should be done into the late hours of the night. Many institutions provide educators a growing set of resources to foster conditions for well-being in class. The University of Texas at Austin’s Well-being in Learning Environments guidebook is a good example.
4. Recognize, respond, and refer students in distress
In addition to gaining the skills and knowledge to recognize and respond to students in distress, faculty members increasingly understand the importance of being familiar with the mental health resources available at their institutions — as well as the appropriate mechanisms for raising the alert regarding students about whom they’re concerned. Institutions that train faculty and staff on student mental health protocols will be better prepared to support campus health and well-being.
Provide faculty and staff tools to support students
The signs that a student may need mental health support
Faculty must not only learn the signs that a student may need support, but be observant in the classroom environment, whether it is in-person or virtual.
Academic signs of a student in distress
- Repeated class absences, tardiness, frequently missed appointments
- Repeated requests for unusual accommodations for papers, exams, or classwork
- Submission of papers that have themes of hopelessness, despair, paranoia, and/or anger
- Decline in academic performance
Physical and psychological signs of a student in distress
- Increase or decrease in weight
- Deterioration in personal hygiene
- Anxiety or panic such as sweating, hyperventilating, the need to flee from the classroom or office
- Alcohol or drug use, slurred or garbled speech, dilated or bloodshot eyes, the smell of alcohol
- Poor concentration or low motivation in class
- Change in energy level behavior that is inappropriate for a classroom (e.g., aggressive, irritable, abrasive, crying, euphoria, non-stop talking)
Other signs of a student in distress
- Disclosure of problems with family, peers, significant other, or a recent personal loss
- Written or verbal statements that indicate hopelessness, depression, preoccupation with death or violence
- Reference to harming, cutting, or burning oneself
- Isolation from peers, faculty, or staff
- Peers express concern about a student
The toll on faculty mental health
Nearly half of faculty feel that their institution should invest more in supporting faculty mental health and well-being, according to The Boston University survey. Within this group, almost 10% screened positive for symptoms of major depression, and over 20% agree that supporting students in mental and emotional distress has taken a toll on their own mental health.
The unfortunate reality is that faculty members are struggling, and institutional leadership must do better to support faculty as they communicate with students about their mental health. At a minimum, institutions should provide faculty with more training and resources on student mental health issues.
What can faculty do to protect their own mental health? Talking helps, as well as valuing self-care . Like the safety videos on commercial airlines say, faculty must secure their own oxygen masks by taking care of their own mental health before they assist the young people in their classes. But, what tools and resources are available for those on your campus that need support?
How telehealth supports faculty as they support students
As colleges and universities head into another academic year, faculty must be prepared to help students thrive. With that in mind, TimelyMD offers faculty and staff support in getting students connected to the right resources at the right time.
For TimelyMD campuses, faculty and staff can contact TimelyMD when they’re concerned about a student’s well-being, failing grades, or declining engagement. A mental health provider will collaborate with the staff or faculty member to develop a strategy for connecting the student to support services.
TimelyMD is committed to providing faculty and staff with the guidance they need to navigate whatever challenges may arise. Contact TimelyMD to explore how telehealth can support campus well-being.