The issue of student mental health has been one of my chief subjects in my writing for Inside Higher Ed, so much so that my first exploration of the topic came before "Just Visiting" even existed, when I was still guesting at Oronte Churm’s digs.
Looking at that early post where I contrasted the tenacity and resilience of U.S. Olympians Ariel Hsing and Natalie Coughlin with the perceived fragility of students who were apparently shaken by routine academic demands, I see a person whose attitudes and beliefs around these questions is in transition.
The me who wrote that post in 2012 is related to 2021 me in significant ways. My critique is focused not on the students themselves, but on the cultural factors that were creating these high-pressure situations among college-bound students.
On the other hand, my thinking has clearly evolved. At the time, I apparently believed that ameliorating this situation was essentially a matter of unilateral disarmament among the privileged classes, that people just needed to recognize that their kids were going to be all right without going to the most selective college possible and they could afford to ease back on the throttle. The post implies that solving the problem is a matter of individual agency and will.
While individuals can opt out of race, I now recognize that this problem -- like just about all the problems in higher education -- is structural, and individual acts of defiance and opting out are likely to have little effect.
It’s not unlike the problem of contingent labor, when adjuncts are advised to just quit their jobs. This may (or may not) improve the fortunes of the individual instructor, but it does nothing to address the underlying problem, which is a fundamental disconnect in how we view the work of instructional labor, regardless of academic rank. It definitely does not do anything for the overall quality of undergraduate instruction to treat the folks doing the majority of the teaching as fungible, burning out and washing out experienced instructors by the bucketful.
Obviously, the problem of student mental health existed prior to the pandemic. School is demonstrably bad for students. I believe that the very nature and atmosphere of school and schooling plays a big role in causing the problem, particularly because schooling is situated inside a larger culture of economic precarity and scarcity.
I feel like a lonely voice on this front, but the charge that a culture of “safetyism,” an irrational fear of potential harm, too much screen time and not enough recess is to blame for student anxiety and depression just seems unlikely. The charge of safetyism suggests that students (and their parents) are afflicted by a psychological pathology that can be therapied away.
This belief is consistent with a growing notion that faculty should or could be “gatekeepers” of student mental health.
Now, I am an advocate of instructors being mindful of student well-being as they consider their pedagogy. I even believe sound pedagogy can help ameliorate some of more pernicious effects of “schooling.” My approach in The Writer’s Practice is specifically oriented around giving students the freedom and agency necessary to take charge of their own learning, which I believe reduces school-related anxiety.
Faculty should always be focused on student well-being, including their mental well-being, since a stressed and depressed student isn’t going to be in a good state of mind for learning.
However, I do not believe that increasing the role of faculty in directly addressing the problem of student mental health is likely to have positive effects on either student or faculty performance.
I believe this for all the cautions cited by others in Colleen Flaherty’s coverage of the trend: faculty are not trained mental health professionals, and interjecting this role with the job of instructor is fraught.
But here’s the biggest problem from my point of view: We’re not going to solve this problem by requiring people to do more. We are already suffering under a culture where everyone feels like they’re being asked to do too much. To be required to do more does not make sense and is the recipe for more stress, more anxiety.
The story of higher education over the last 30 years has been requiring faculty to do more. For adjunct instructors, this has meant attempting to do the work of faculty without the necessary resources to succeed. For tenured faculty, this has meant filling the gaps caused by their ever-shrinking number.
To solve this problem means disrupting this cycle. Rather than adding more responsibilities, it means removing burdens on both faculty and students. This is what I did with my personal approach to pedagogy, setting aside my previously fixed notions of requirements around assignments, and instead focusing on the kinds of activities, and more importantly the kind of atmosphere that I believe is conducive to learning to write.
It is this change in atmosphere that had the biggest positive impact on both student learning and student spirits. Relieving pressure resulted in students doing more writing, but with less stress attached. I had a structural problem in my class that I could only solve by rebuilding those structures from scratch.
Recognizing that we have a serious problem with the intersection of mental health and higher education is important progress, but adding mental health counselor to the job of faculty is not going to bring about a solution.
We can’t merely effort our way out of a mental health crisis. It is not a problem of will or working harder. People are particularly drained from the last year, but the exhaustion has been decades in the making. We must examine the larger structures to get at the roots of the problem.