Academic mental health in US spotlight after senior suicides

Stronger attention to student mental health appears to overlook need among teachers

March 25, 2019

As they pay closer attention to student mental health, US universities may be falling short on protecting the mental health of their staff, educational experts said after two high-profile academic suicides.

“There’s all sorts of talk on college campuses about the increasing suicides among students,” said Mark Salzer, professor of social and behavioural sciences at Temple University. “We are not talking about the same thing for faculty and for staff.”

Amber O’Shea, assistant professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, agreed. “How can we expect students to be able to self-advocate, understand what psychiatric disability means, in the context of higher ed, if we see that faculty also don’t?” she asked.

Both are among a small number of researchers who look at the specific question of faculty mental health. Their work has found that their academic colleagues nationwide, for all their sophistication, rarely even understand the options available to them at times of mental illness.

Such issues are fresh for US academics after the recent suicides of Alan Krueger, a long-time Princeton University professor and White House economic adviser, and Vikram Jandhyala, the vice-president for innovation strategy at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Universities, for all the brainpower they house, appear little better than any other employer at detecting signs of impending trouble, whether it’s subtle or overt, Professor Salzer said. “You’d think that colleges and higher education would be more enlightened about this.”

Universities often have abundant services for mental health, and federal law requires employers to offer job accommodations for those who need them. But a 2017 survey of faculty nationwide, conducted by Professor Salzer, Dr O’Shea and colleagues, found nearly 70 per cent had no or limited familiarity with such options.

Participating scholars said they felt supported by spouses and friends, not by supervisors or colleagues.

That said, the situation facing college faculty is probably no worse, and likely better, than that facing many other workers in the US, Professor Salzer said. Education level does not predict suicide risk, though economic stress does, he said.

“I know that there are some faculty out there who like to talk about the stresses of the job – it’s very lonely and isolating, and getting tenure is stressful,” Professor Salzer said. “But I think that’s an entitled perspective to have. Really, suicide rates are higher among poorer people – people who are dealing with severe [financial difficulties].”

That, he said, almost certainly includes the lower-ranking members of the college teaching fraternity, whose troubles would not attract headlines. “We don’t hear the stories about the adjunct faculty member teaching eight courses in four or five different places,” Professor Salzer said. “I’m going to worry about everybody, but those are the people who are really at risk.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

If you’re having suicidal thoughts or feel you need to talk to someone, a free helpline is available round the clock in the UK on 116123, or you can email jo@samaritans.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

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Reader's comments (1)

An article on a subject such as his should start with some DATA. That there were"two high-profile academic suicides is not very useful information. How many suicides are there among academics each year? What is the rate compared to other professions? Until you have this information do not write articles with non-research based OPINIONS such as: "Amber O’Shea, assistant professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, agreed. “How can we expect students to be able to self-advocate, understand what psychiatric disability means, in the context of higher ed, if we see that faculty also don’t?” she asked."

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