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Crowdsourced: Mental Health on Your Campus?
March 17, 2014 - 9:12pm

Hello Fellow UVenus Writers,

I’ve been reading some articles lately about mental illness in Academia (here and here)  and it has gotten me thinking about how I have experienced the topic of mental well-being on my campus.
I wrote a UVenus post a couple years ago that touched on this when my own campus was looking at a mental health initiative, and for various reasons my position didn’t continue on the committee. I thought it was a really important but incredibly complicated issue, and I was happy to see that our community was taking it seriously. But the focus was definitely on the students, and though  I pushed to have the scope broadened a bit, the staff and faculty were definitely viewed as the secondary priority.

As one of our crowd-sourced posts, I was wondering if any of you would be willing to share your experiences with this on your campuses. Are there supports for faculty and staff experiencing challenges? Is there an acknowledgement of this growing concern, or is it “accepted” as a part of academia and/or stigmatized?

Bonnie Stewart: My campus initiated Mental Health Week last year and has continued the initiative this year. It’s actually a pretty significant effort towards opening up conversation and creating safe and diverse spaces for acknowledging mental health issues. This year’s Mental Health Week starts today, and students, faculty, and staff who are active on social media are sharing photos of ourselves with little buttons and a “Today I feel…” message. There is also a schedule of activities  underway for Mental Health Week on my campus.

Mental Health week is an awareness and acknowledgement campaign, led primarily by staff - UPEI’s Manager of Student Affairs has a professional background in mental health - but inclusive of everyone, and with pretty wide participation. In terms of services, we do pretty well by students and grad students here: on-campus counsellors with short wait times and a doc/nurses/psychiatrist who all schedule on-campus appointments. Faculty and staff are covered by an EFAP plan which makes counselling and support services available off-campus, but - this is ALWAYS the big but - some contract staff do not qualify, and are likely to have the least resources and institutional backing when support is needed. Having been a contract staff member in a time of crisis (I was airlifted to hospital in another province 24 weeks into my first pregnancy), the gaps in infrastructure and support for contract employees are an issue I would emphasize. Likewise, there are still institutional infrastructural barriers towards individuals actually disclosing mental health challenges, and still a long way to go towards a culture of transparency.

Liana Silva-Ford: I have two situations. As a staff member, I once inquired about seeing a therapist on campus. I was told that as a staff member, I could not use campus services. As a graduate student I once went to the mental health services on my grad school campus and met with a therapist. I only went once, because I felt the therapist was not prepared to work with a graduate student. I also noticed in the office I was by far the oldest student waiting to be seen. In both cases, I ended up looking for someone off campus; fortunately, I had health insurance, so I could afford it. However, *many* graduate students do not, and part-time employees often do not have medical benefits. In both cases, I was disheartened that there wasn’t a place on campus I could go for help. For many, this is the first place where they look; for some, it’s the *only* place where they look.

Janni Aragon: Consistently, I have found that many of my undergraduate students  view going to counseling as something that stigmatizes them and their academic record. It takes work to encourage some of them to take care of themselves and that the university has services to help them. I have explained repeatedly, I will get a note on letterhead from the Counseling office that states that you need an extension for personal reasons. Some students think that the note that goes out to faculty discloses personal information, but it does not. I end up working as an advocate for the student and campus services.

I also try to remember that students are bombarded with so much information, and that I cannot assume that they realize there is peer help, counseling, a health center, and offices for students with disabilities. I try to pay attention, and if I see warning signals (anxiety, wearing the same clothes several days in a row, a change in personal hygiene), I will confer with the student about how s/he is doing. Since I work with numerous graduate students as my Teaching Assistants, I also rely on them to keep me abreast of any concerns that they might see in our large first year course.

Rosalie Arcala Hall: I recall two incidents involving undergraduate students who had fallen psychologically ill while I was Division Chair and OIC for Student Affairs. Both were taken to the hospital (there is a psychiatric facility in one of the City hospitals, 40 kilometers from our campus) and put on suicide watch after exhibiting disturbing behavior (one was a failed suicide attempt). As an administrator, I had to talk to the parents and make arrangements regarding the students’ classes.  As a result of these incidents, the Counselors were given an office within the college building in the hope that students would have better access. Our Psychology faculty also began providing off-hour group debriefing sessions in order for the community to be better aware and recognize when something is off amongst our students.

In our University, there remains a strong stigma attached to those who have episodes. Word gets around and it becomes very tough for the students to come back. Of the two cases, one transferred to another school closer to her parents so she can be better supervised. The other student is closely watched by her Psychology professors as she had been intermittently going on leave of absence. It is a tough job for our Counselors to monitor everyone as we have a large student population.

Ana Dinescu: As in many other intellectual journeys, loneliness can offer a certain comfort and basic conditions for study, but in the long term, it is seriously detrimental to (mental) health. And I am not referring only to qualified medical and psychiatric personnel ready to help in case of emergency, but about a healthy social network that can offer a backup when the anxiety and work overload is hard to cope with. A psychiatrist can do admirable work trying to repair the eventual psychological damage, but he or she cannot offer the security of family and friends.

Many academics might completely change their cultural and linguistic environment to pursue their studies and a career, and although there is a lot of charm in the expat life, there are equally many challenges and difficulties, especially if your immediate tasks will force you to spend a good amount of time in the isolation of libraries.

A serious and sincere discussion about such issues is very important because it concerns the kind of intellectual we have in our society.

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe:  I have been involved when graduate students at other institutions made me aware of their mental health problems, because I had known them during their undergraduate years.  I think these former students shared with me for two reasons.  First, they felt closer to me from their undergraduate experience than they did to their graduate mentors.  Second, every graduate student fears losing his or her mentor’s respect.  Because undergraduates interact with numerous faculty and staff, they have less at stake in any one relationship.  This is in no way to underestimate the tremendous issues we face with undergraduate mental health.  Nonetheless, I think the dominant graduate training system in which doctoral candidates have a primary adviser upon whom completion, job placement, and career depend, creates a perceived pathology in which to “confess” a problem is a form of career “suicide.”  

Other useful resources from UVenus staff:

 

 

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