If your students had a chance to tell you what they think about how faculty and academic staff matter to student mental health, what might they say? On February 15th many of us had a chance to find out. Karen Eifler and the Teaching and Learning Collaborative hosted a brownbag presentation by Molly Thomas and Rachel Mehlman in their roles as student leaders from the UP chapter of Active Minds – along with our colleague Sarina Saturn in her role as Active Minds faculty advisor. The discussion was robust, with student derived ideas leading to a productive back-and-forth with faculty, academic staff, and administrators.
First, what is Active Minds? It is a national organization that has chapters at a wide variety of educational institutions, including the one UP students started about three years ago. As the national organization describes itself: “Active Minds is the leading nonprofit organization that empowers students to speak openly about mental health in order to educate others and encourage help-seeking. We are changing the culture on campuses and in the community by providing information, leadership opportunities and advocacy training to the next generation.”
The UP chapter has been busy in recent years doing student campaigns to improve mental health awareness through chalking messages, symbol campaigns with paper flowers on the quad, contributing to events addressing coping with loss and stress, and more. The chapter also gets together students who are particularly interested in and concerned about supporting campus mental health – meaning that they think a lot about what is being done well at UP, what could use improvement, and what best practices we could borrow from other places. They think about, in other words, how what we do in the classroom matters beyond their grades.
One relatively simple suggestion for teaching faculty during the brownbag was to make sure that on the first day of class we include some discussion of the mental health syllabus statement. Students know that much of the stuff on the syllabus is perfunctory, but they noted that it matters if professors take the time to emphasize the available supports and the reality that at least some students will experience mental health concerns each semester.
Students also suggested trying to use the first week of class to humanize ourselves – to share some information about our own (sometimes messy) lives, to emphasize that we care about students as people, and to emphasize that we’re happy to talk with students during office hours. In the room we discussed how many new college students think of office hours as something like a high school teacher’s ‘planning period’ – meaning that many are reluctant to interrupt. Having some “meet and greet” office hours, even with ‘canned’ questions, can help students feel integrated.
The Active Minds group also noted that attendance policies can be complicated for students with mental health concerns. As they framed it:
- “Some professors will drop your grade 10% after two absences unless I have a doctor’s note”
- “The health center doesn’t give out sick notes” [which is true, in case anyone doesn’t already know – the Health and Counseling Center at UP has a general policy of not giving ‘sick notes’ to not confuse matters]
- “Just adds to my depression to feel so horrible about missing class to take care of my mental health when I can’t even get out of bed”
They asked whether in our classes we might “consider allowing a personal day, like in the workforce” and suggested we avoid “calling out students sarcastically if they have been MIA (maybe they are not slackers, but in the throes of deep depression)”
When students do start having attendance problems that may be mental health related, the discussion centered around first reaching out to students before making any assumptions. The group also discussed Early Alert as an important option, though students noted some concerns that submitting an Early Alert can quickly escalate. Some students have had experiences where an Early Alert submission led to dramatic intervention by Public Safety and contact with parents – which are often necessary to ensure students are safe, but which in some cases may be perceived by students as excessive and discouraging. It is important to err on the side of caution, but it is also important to be sensitive to student perceptions and some need for confidentiality.
Another best practice mentioned in the discussion is to make sure we as faculty and academic staff know the available resources for students: remind students that appointments at the counseling center are free (or, more accurately, already paid for by virtue of regular tuition and fees) and confidential. Know that the Health and Counseling Center phone number now includes access to after hours phone counseling through ProtoCall. Know about the presence of diverse clubs that can help students with evolving identities feel at home: the Gay-Straight Partnership; Students Against Sexual Assault; other diversity and multicultural clubs; the International Club; etc.. Students also see diversity as closely related to mental health, and emphasized the importance of respecting different beliefs and backgrounds – whether that be in relation to religious strictures, cultural stigmas related to mental health, or the implications of racial, gender, and socio-economic inequality.
Our hour-long discussion on the 15th back was too short – Active Minds had other slides and suggestions that we didn’t get to given the robustness of the discussion. Dr. Saturn, in her role as faculty advisor for Active Minds also encouraged anyone interested in more information to contact her via email (firstname.lastname@example.org). But a good general take-away would be the reality that we can all benefit from more discussions and dialogue around mental health needs and concerns. Faculty and academic staff may be the experts in our subject areas, but students are the experts at perceiving how what happens in and around our classes impacts their well-being.