What do UP faculty, and staff on the academic side of the University, need to know about student mental health? This question has been much on my mind the last few years as discussions about mental health in college has seemed to accelerate both locally and nationally.
At UP the issue particularly came to the fore during the 2015-2016 academic year after a tragic constellation of three student and one staff deaths by suicide. This was followed by a burst of concerted attention: Fr. Poorman created an Ad Hoc Panel on Mental Health to audit, consult, and recommend mental health services and supports for students; the organizing theme for the 2016 Faculty Development Day program was mental health; the University increased staff at the Health and Counseling Center and for related programs such as Early Alert.
There is no doubt that progress has been made. But the start of a new academic year, and the classrooms full of new faces, also offers a reminder that the challenges of educating students in head, hands, and heart are ongoing and dynamic; there is always more to do.
One thing I hope to do this year is to start integrating information about student mental health into the work of the Teaching and Learning Collaborative—and I’d love to hear from others on the academic side of the University about what would be most helpful. With the generous cooperation of Karen Eifler and others, the hope is to regularly make information available on this blog, to host periodic brownbag discussions about specific student mental health issues, and to better communicate among faculty and academic staff about ways of attending to the mental health of our students as a part of good teaching and learning.
As I noted during the 2016 Faculty Development Day program, faculty and academic staff do not need to (and really should not) become paraprofessional counselors – we have an excellent staff of real professional counselors on campus, and many other resources devoted to the mental health of our students. But if we are to truly educate our students as whole people, we do need to be aware of what we can and should do to connect students to services and supports they may sometimes need (as just one example, hopefully most faculty now know that submitting an ‘early alert’ for a student of concern is an important first step in getting access to appropriate help).
One of the important realizations I had while working on the 2015-2016 Ad Hoc Panel on Mental Health was that while there are many great support services for students across the University in departments ranging from athletics, to residence life, to public safety, to campus ministry, the faculty are the only group that will inevitably interact with every single UP student. Our classes are the one thing every UP student must do.
As such, there may also be ways to think about the educational environments we create on the academic side of the University in relation to mental health promotion. What, for example, can we do in the ways we communicate with students to help destigmatize mental health concerns? How can we help students separate their grades in courses from their value as people? What are best practices in higher education for helping faculty to be allies in creating healthy campus climates?
But this is also where I need your help; I’d love to hear from others what questions, and what insights, you have (please feel free to email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org). What can we on the academic side do to better open lines of communication that build off the good work done in recent years at UP related to student mental health? As a starting point, look for more in this blog space through the coming year.