It was not so long ago, back in 2015, that UP was shocked by four suicides in less than nine months: three students and one alumnus on the UP staff. Partially in response to those tragic events, through the 2015-16 academic year an Ad Hoc Panel on Mental Health convened to research and recommend ways UP could best address student mental health concerns. Many of those recommendations have been implemented, much good work has been done, and UP has been lucky not to see another spate of high-profile tragedies since 2015. Attending to student mental health, however, is an ongoing concern and there is always more to be done.
The very first recommendation from the 2015-2016 panel was to significantly improve “publicly available information and communications around mental health resources and policies.” As one effort towards that end, I’ve been using this Teaching & Learning Community Blog to share information and ideas for faculty and academic staff concerned about student mental health. While much necessary effort has been made to improve mental health resources on the student affairs side of the University, we on the academic side are the only people who inevitably interact with every University of Portland students. Not all students live in residence halls despite their excellent support networks, not all students visit the Health and Counseling Center despite their excellent resources, but all students by definition have to attend our classes. So what might faculty and academic staff need to know?
First, know that faculty and academic staff are not (and generally should not try to be) paraprofessional counselors. Almost all the best practices in helping students with mental health issues involve simply knowing the available resources and being able to refer students to ways to get professional help. At UP this often starts with the Early Alert system and/or a direct referral to the Health and Counseling Center.
In addition to those immediate resources, starting in 2017 I’ve written a series of blog posts addressing mental health topics that might be of interest to faculty and academic staff. A few highlights for the curious might include:
- Some data on how UP students seem to compare in relation to their mental health status;
- Notes on the concern that many of our students may be “failure deprived” in a way that limits resilience;
- Ideas about best practices for mental health in higher education.
During the 2018-2019 academic year I updated, adapted, and significantly supplemented the blog to produce an on-line handbook for UP faculty and academic staff concerned about student mental health. The model for this is a very useful handbook that Cornell University published in 2009 titled Recognizing and Responding to Students in Distress (which no longer seems available on-line), which was more recently updated by the University of California system for their faculty as a publicly available resource titled: Promoting Student Mental Health — A Guide for UC Faculty and Staff. The goal has been to build off that table of contents to produce material relevant specifically to the University of Portland context that can live and evolve as an on-line document housed here on the Teaching & Learning Community Blog. Note that this resource is mostly an effort to share information between faculty and academic staff, and is not an official UP document. I am very open to suggestions and/or contributions (contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org), but as of now the resource has three parts:
Part I: Immediate concerns
- Ways of recognizing students in distress
- Ways of responding to students in distress
- Faculty responsibilities – including on the legal side.
Part II: Promoting well-being
- Reducing stress
- Failure and resilience
- Setting boundaries – balancing challenge and support
- Education and training opportunities
Part III: Student concerns
- What students want faculty and academic staff to know
- The most common mental health issues
- The most common trauma experiences
- Relationships between diversity, inclusion, and mental health
- Sub-groups: athletes (Part I here; Part II here)
If this proves useful, there may someday be a Part IV that would comprise other campus perspectives from offices such as Health and Counseling Center, Early Alert, Residence Life, Academic Advising, Public Safety, Campus Ministry, Athletics, etc.. So please do let me know any questions or thoughts and stayed tuned into the ways faculty and academic staff can be constructive participants in helping UP be a mentally healthy place to get an education.