Higher education faculty members have an increasing role in responding to student mental health concerns. This has been especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic, as professors say there has been an uptick in students who come to them with feelings of isolation and loneliness due to a lack of regular socialization.
UO was part of a study that revealed 87% of faculty nationwide think student mental health has worsened over the pandemic. Just under three-fourths would welcome additional professional development on the topic, and about one-fifth agree that supporting students in mental and emotional distress has taken a toll on their own mental health. The study, “The Role of Faculty in Student Mental Health,” looked at 12 universities in January 2021 and is from the Boston University School of Public Health, the Mary Christie Foundation and the Healthy Minds Network.
UO Associate Professor Autumn Shafer said she has at least one student per course come to her with a mental health issue. Most of the time it is about feeling stressed and needing more time on an assignment, but other times the issue pertains to sexual assault, eating disorders or domestic violence.
“When I have had students who are in crisis, I will think about it. I will think about it as I wake up, I'll think about it through the day, I'll be looking at things online trying to accommodate or send the student resources. Just worrying about it, checking in on them,” Shafer said. “But it doesn't bother me. I'm honored to be a part of students' lives.”
Shafer, who studies health communication, is on the Mental Health Advisory Council—a task force made up of around 30 faculty and staff across campus who work on mental health-related projects. The council was created in 2018, thanks to a Garrett Lee Smith Suicide Prevention grant, and is co-led by Suzie Stadelman and Mariko Lin.
Stadelman, who works in UO’s suicide prevention efforts, listed off some of the projects the council has worked on, which include an optional mental health statement for faculty to include in their syllabi, a free online mental health training program called Kognito, drop-in therapy sessions and a program called Don’t Cancel Class. If a faculty member knows they will not make it to work that day, they can bring in someone from UO Counseling Services to give a presentation rather than canceling class.
“It may or may not be directly related to the class content. It might be Math 201, and then we come in and do an anxiety and stress and anxiety management workshop or something like that,” Stadelman said. “So it's not like the guests teach algebra, but we can come in and kind of infuse wellness into the classroom.”
While the Mental Health Advisory Council mainly focuses on student mental health, faculty members can access the Employee Assistance Program through Human Resources, which provides five therapy sessions and helps them find a therapist to continue seeing after that. Stadelman said she thinks most insurance plans UO offers covers therapy.
Assistant Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Janet Woodruff-Borden said that it became clear early on in the pandemic that faculty members were the first point of contact for many students with mental health concerns. In response, the Office of the Provost partnered with Counseling Services and other groups across campus to create a syllabi statement, slide decks of coping resources for faculty to put in their Canvas page, and spoke to faculty about how to have conversations with students about getting them connected with resources.
“Our goal really was to create a community of care, to help faculty to help students but also to recognize that faculty needs support through this as well,” Woodruff-Borden said.
She said she was unfortunately not surprised by the survey’s findings, but she was encouraged to see that UO had already implemented some of the professional training practices respondents said they wanted from their institutions.
“We're looking all across the country at different schools, having essentially the same experience,” Woodruff-Borden said. “It's not just here. And we know that this is a systemic issue across the country.”
Shafer said having conversations around how to talk to students about their mental health benefits everybody. She said the best time to have these conversations is during a faculty meeting so people don’t have to carve out extra time in an already busy year.
“I anticipate there'll be students in every course I have for eternity with mental health issues or things that are affecting their coursework or personal life that they want to talk about,” Shafer said. “Whether there is a pandemic or not, I think it's an important issue to address.”