Teaching and Mental Health

Faculty and Teaching Fellows often are in an excellent position to identify students and colleagues who are struggling, and to refer them to the right person or department for help. Research shows that for most people, it requires only one person—be they an advisor, mentor, or a trusted colleague—to take an interest in their mental health and have a conversation about their long term goals and about how they might improve some aspect of their present situation to open them up to changing course in some way. And yet, at the same time, many instructors understandably report that they feel uncomfortable and/or unprepared in reaching out to a student or colleague in distress. After all, most of us are trained to be teachers and scholars, not mental health professionals.

Sarah LipsonRecognizing this challenge, the Bok Center collaborated with Sarah Lipson (Assistant Professor, Department of Health Law Policy and Management, Boston University School of Public Health) to compile some modest but effective measures that faculty and Teaching Fellows might employ to support their students' mental health. Prof. Lipson, a Principal Investigator at The Healthy Minds Network, also spent time earlier in her career as a residential advisor in Harvard College, and is well acquainted with the stresses that students and instructors are facing—stresses that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Mental health matters to everyone; normalize seeking support

  • While we tend to speak in binaries—as if we are either flourishing or in a crisis—in fact, everyone’s mental health is somewhere along a continuum of surviving-to-thriving at any given time, and we often move back and forth along that continuum.

  • The average person who begins experiencing symptoms of a mental health problem waits approximately 10 years before first making contact with treatment. The most common barriers people cite to seeking treatment are: a lack of perceived urgency, experiential avoidance (i.e. a desire to avoid unpleasant thoughts), procrastination, and the cost of treatment.

  • Among students, many who seek help only do so when they're in a crisis, which may represent a missed opportunity for early intervention that might have mitigated some negative academic outcomes.

The college years are a particularly trying time with regard to mental health

  • 75% of lifetime mental health problems onset by age 24, and most typically during one’s adolescent and early adult years.

  • Research indicates that college students are experiencing increasing rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation over time.

  • In January 2022, 80% of college students reported that their mental health affected their academic performance. It's important to note that the causal relationship between college students' mental health and academic performance can be bidirectional: a mental health concern may affect a student's academic performance, which may in turn affect their mental health.

  • Some of what we might consider the common features of the "college experience"—financial stress, irregular sleep, loneliness, and peer competition—are also major risk factors for mental health.

There is a lot that instructors can do to foster healthy minds and habits among their students

Though they are not expected to be experts in identifying and responding to the full range of mental health issues that their students or teaching staff may be experiencing, faculty can do a number of relatively straightforward things to contribute to a productive environment in their courses and advising relationships.

General course design principles

  • Acknowledge on your syllabus and in the first class meeting that students may be experiencing stress and uncertainty, and that it is important to you that they feel supported in seeking help

    • Consider including the coordinates of campus mental health resources (as well as other student support resources, like the Academic Resource Center) on the syllabus
    • If it feels appropriate and authentic to you, you may even share your own experiences of failure and/or mental health challenges, as a way of normalizing the idea that very successful and effective people may also have these struggles and can ask for help.

  • Give students the opportunity to connect with their peers by including groupwork/breakout rooms into your class time. These can even be explicitly social (i.e. as opposed to academic) interludes.

  • Revisit your grading policies.

    • Avoid grading on a curve, which creates academic competitiveness and has been shown to be particularly detrimental to underrepresented/marginalized students.
    • Consider allowing students to drop their lowest grade, which can help to alleviate stress.

  • Revisit your policies around deadlines and extensions

    • Set the submission deadline for your assignments such that students are not encouraged to stay up all night or otherwise distort their sleep schedules around high-stakes assignments. Midnight and 9AM deadlines tend to incentivize students to work at odd hours and/or to leave them unsupported (i.e. unable to reach you by email) down the homestretch.
    • Try as much as possible to remove any sense of shame, or any need for oversharing, from the process of requesting an extension.
    • Emphasize to students your willingness to communicate frequently and authentically about their needs—and their responsibility to communicate frequently with you, in return.

When encountering a student who needs help

  • Note that a repeated failure to attend class, negative changes in academic performance, and not participating or engaging in class can all be signs of a student experiencing mental health needs.

  • Rather than attempting to solve a student’s problem for them, you can use an approach known as "motivational interviewing" to help them generate goals and action items on their own.

Some considerations for faculty re: Teaching Fellows

  • Remember that Teaching Fellows are facing mental health challenges from two directions: at the same time as they feel responsible for their students, they are also students themselves, passing through what many would consider a testing and/or insecure phase of their academic careers and lives. It is just as important when communicating with TFs as it is with undergraduates to normalize asking for help and prioritizing one's mental health.

  • Teaching Fellows can provide invaluable insight with regard to an undergraduate who may just be starting to show some signs of difficulty; faculty should encourage them to speak frequently and openly with them about students who may need extra support.