The mental health crisis must be met with an accepting campus community

Acknowledging that faculty and students both struggle with mental health is the first step to tackling it, says Hilal A. Lashuel

December 23, 2019

Stress, anxiety and depression have always been part of university life but have only recently received the attention they deserve. This is in large part due to several studies that have exposed the staggering rates of mental health problems among undergraduate and graduate students. Universities can no longer ignore what students have known for decades: the mental health crisis on university campuses is real. 

Universities are starting to devote more resources to helping students deal with their mental health challenges. However, the pace of progress towards recognising that mental health is as important as physical health remains slow. Responses are usually reactionary, responding to tragedies picked up by the media rather than addressing the underlying causes through mental health and wellness strategies.

But we forget that faculty and university staff also struggle with mental health challenges.Their mental health is usually overlooked, perhaps due to their small number compared to students. They are also less likely to speak up or admit to experiencing mental distress because they fear the stakes for their reputation and career are high.

The absence of open discussion on the mental health of faculty and lack of data assessing the magnitude of the problem means it never rises to the top of institutional priority lists; there is no sense of urgency to address it.

The general public, including parents, are not surprised when they learn that up to 40 per cent of college students experience stress, anxiety and other mental health conditions. Most have had similar experiences and can accept that this is part of the process of preparing students for the real world. It is not surprising, then, that their focus is always on how to support their children and help them cope, rather than to try to understand and address the underlying causes of the issue.

it is only when students or professors struggles with mental health disorders lead to tragic ends that parents and society start to question whether universities are doing enough to prevent such tragedies.

What people fail to realise is that the faculty and staff charged with caring and educating their children are not trained in mental health awareness and intervention. Although universities expect their faculty – the people who have daily contact with students – to play a big role in addressing the mental health crisis, most fail to offer staff the training needed to do this job, adding to their struggles to manage their own mental health.  

Honest and constructive conversations between students and faculty cannot take place in an environment where faculty and staff are not comfortable to express their vulnerability and talk about their own experiences and mental health challenges. 

What can be done?

Make mental health a strategic priority

University leaders should acknowledge that mental health challenges for students and faculty are real. They should develop an institutional mental health and well-being strategy that is accompanied by a concrete action plan and mechanisms to monitor progress, measure success and implement improvements, all with input from everyone on campus. In addition to sending a strong message that mental health is not an individual issue, an open community-wide discussion is essential to identify the main contributors to the crisis. Institutional commitments to addressing mental health should be reflected in all aspects of university life, procedures and policies.  There are no quick fixes. It will take committed leadership and consistent efforts by all stakeholders to change attitudes and campus cultures.

Regularly assess faculty mental health

Very few universities, if any, conduct studies to evaluate the impact of faculty and staff’s mental health on their productivity and the quality of their teaching. Without such data, it is difficult to understand the magnitude of the problem and the extent to which it impacts the mission of the university.

Provide training in mental health awareness and intervention

Often such support mechanisms for students are available in counselling offices far away from classrooms and offered by individuals or specialists who do not interact with the students daily. These mechanisms ignore the important role that faculty play in supporting students who are experiencing different forms of mental health illnesses. Teachers can play important roles in creating an environment where the students feel that both their academic success and mental wellbeing are equally valued.  

In order to do this faculty must be provided with appropriate resources and training, not only on how to handle their own mental health challenges but also on how to recognise signs of stress, anxiety and depression in their students. Some universities already require students to take online courses that help them recognise and cope with mental health illnesses. The same type of training should be required for all faculty and staff. Such courses should also include how to identify warning signs of mental health problems in colleagues. This training, however, won’t be effective without fostering a culture in which people feel comfortable talking about mental health and seek support early on.

Start the conversation, be inclusive and normalise the discussion

Acknowledging that mental health issues affect students, faculty and staff is an essential first step to lifting the stigma associated with mental health. This is also important for creating a culture and environment that encourages the type of collective efforts needed to develop holistic solutions to the crisis.

As faculty we need to learn more about what influences students’ mental health, but we must also have an open discussion with university leadership about our own mental health and how it influences our work and ability to help students. Perhaps if we open up to our students and explain what we go through they would be more willing to approach us with their struggles with mental health.

Ending the silence means that none of us has to suffer alone. Only when we are no longer  ashamed or afraid to talk about our mental health issues will we be able to address them and prevent further tragedies from happening.  

Hilal A. Lashuel is an associate professor and director of the Laboratory of Molecular and Chemical Biology of Neurodegeneration at the Brain Mind Institute, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

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