Cameron Mozafari wasn’t surprised when a student walked into his office at Cornell University and started crying.
“Honestly, this happens so frequently now that my first reaction was, ‘You don’t need to disclose anything to me that will make you feel uncomfortable,’” said Mozafari, who teaches engineering communication at Cornell’s College of Engineering. “‘Because whatever you’re going through, I believe you.’ ”
Mozafari told the student, who had been struggling with a major depressive episode triggered by trauma, that there would be no penalty for assignments turned in late.
“I could just see their spirits lift immediately,” Mozafari said. “The reaction was, ‘Well, you know, my other professors, they don’t want to hear it.’ And I thought to myself, ‘This is a really terrible thing that we’re doing to students. I don’t want my students to expect that if they get sick in any way, mentally or physically, they’re going to be punished for it.’ ”
When he recounted the exchange on Twitter, the thread garnered nearly 200,000 likes and hundreds of comments. Many ran along the lines of “As a student & educator who recently fell off the face of the earth due to a severe depression—thank you so much for approaching this situation with compassion and grace. Having been in the student’s position in the past I can attest to how much of a difference that it makes.”
Faculty members—as well as staffers—are on the front lines of higher education’s battle to arrest declining student mental health, ravaged by nearly three years of the COVID-19 pandemic combined with such stressors as climate disasters, racial unrest, political incivility and culture wars.
“Faculty are really well positioned to be part of the solution,” said Erica Riba, director of school engagement for the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to promoting emotional health and preventing suicide in young people. “They often serve as the only and primary contact for students and can play a vital role in student retention and attainment. Interactions between students and faculty are very pivotal for learning, student motivation, well-being and overall engagement.”
Helping Faculty Help Students
Higher ed institutions across the country are rolling out or beefing up efforts to help faculty recognize and support students in psychological distress. Measures include providing resource guides, arranging role-play workshops and laying out strategies for minimizing academic stress, such as making assignments due at 5:00 p.m. instead of midnight so students can get a good night’s sleep.
JED put out a free “Faculty Guide to Supporting Student Mental Health,” which includes a list of warning signs that a student may be seriously struggling—repeated absences, poor personal hygiene and “alarming or worrisome content in assignments” among them. It also offers some straightforward dos and don’ts. (Do: “Find a way to speak privately to the student,” for instance, and “Ask open-ended questions about how they are doing.” Don’t: “Underestimate the student’s struggles” or “Promise confidentiality—school guidelines might require you to report a student who is at immediate risk of harming themselves,” among other things.)
The guide grew in large part out of a first-of-its-kind survey last year on faculty perceptions of student mental health. Conducted by the Mary Christie Foundation, the Healthy Minds Network and Boston University, “The Role of Faculty in Student Mental Health” found that nearly 80 percent of faculty members had had a one-on-one conversation with a student regarding mental health in the past year, but only half said they had a good idea of how to recognize a student in distress. Nearly three-fourths said they would welcome additional professional development on student mental health.
“As the results of that survey showed, the faculty are not saying, ‘This isn’t my job,’” said Zoe Ragouzeos, president of the Mary Christie Foundation. “They’re saying, ‘In combination with all the other things I have to do, tell me how I can do this right.’”
Ragouzeos, who also serves as executive director of counseling and wellness services at New York University, leads what she calls “detecting students in distress trainings” for faculty groups at NYU—essentially group discussions devoted to different mental health–related subjects.
“Faculty don’t feel as trained as they should,” she said. “And, you know, there are schools that are more resourced than others that can sort of do the rounds like I do. And there are others that just want to put it on a website—which is important, even just to say, ‘Here are the resources that we have on campus for students with mental health or basic needs issues.’”
Group trainings are especially valuable because faculty members can learn a lot from one another, Ragouzeos said. After all, faculty expertise and comfort in openly discussing mental health with students varies a great deal by age, field of study and personal experience, among others.
In one recent session focused on promoting connectedness among students, Ragouzeos recalled, a professor shared his strategy for encouraging “look up moments” at the start of each class: he awarded students extra credit for engaging a classmate in conversation rather than staring at their phones.
“It was amazing to hear how many faculty took on the idea of social connection as part of their charge; even if they were a calculus professor or a chemistry professor, they had ideas about how students should be connecting in their classrooms,” she said.
Harvard University recently created the Crimson Folders program—part of its We’re All Human health and wellness campaign—to give faculty and staff in each school the tools to “recognize, respond, refer and resource” students undergoing mental health challenges. (It is modeled on the Red Folder Initiative the University of California launched a decade ago, said Robin Glover, Harvard University's associate provost for student affairs.) And just last month Harvard introduced voluntary “at-risk” mental health training for faculty and staff, 45-minute online sessions that present different scenarios and offer advice on appropriate responses.
“We did some pilot testing by faculty members in advance to make sure that this would be seen as value-added for the faculty,” said Giang Nguyen, associate provost for campus health and wellbeing. “And we did see that this set of modules was really going to be useful by giving real-world examples that faculty could really relate to, and that they could then take that and apply it in the various settings in which they interact with students.”
The University of North Carolina system recently received a $5 million state grant to extend and update its Mental Health First Aid program, first launched in 2015. The eight-hour online training, available to faculty, students and staff, “teaches people how to recognize the signs and symptoms of a mental health or substance use crisis and how to intervene appropriately,” said program coordinator Alicia Freeman. Though UNC doesn’t require the training of anyone, Freeman said, “there are specific departments that have chosen to prioritize mental health and make it one of their trainings.”
Faculty Need Support, Too
For some, pushing faculty to play a bigger role in combating student psychological distress is a big ask as long as the larger higher education system remains unchanged.
“We’ve designed academia to be a place that prioritizes your productivity,” said Rosie Perez, a professor at the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan.
“When faculty are doing their annual evaluations, nobody is going to ask me, ‘How many students have you supported with their mental health struggles?’ And it is a lot—it’s a lot. But they are going to ask me, ‘How much money did you bring in? How much did students like your course? How many papers did you publish?’ Caring for students is invisible labor that is asked for and is needed. At the same time, there’s no acknowledgment that you’re doing it.”
Faculty are already fleeing the profession, overworked, exhausted and demoralized by low pay. Piling on additional uncompensated responsibilities may only hasten the exodus.
“Dealing with student mental health issues can definitely have an impact on faculty burnout, especially as we all still deal with the trauma associated with ongoing pandemic and social and political unrest,” Rebecca Pope-Ruark, director of the Office of Faculty Professional Development at the Georgia Institute of Technology and author of Unraveling Faculty Burnout (Johns Hopkins University Press), wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “Faculty have their own trauma in this context, so adding students’ creates a secondary trauma situation that can be unhealthy and really challenging.”
What’s really required on college campuses, said Sarah Lipson, a professor of health law policy and management at the Boston University School of Public Health and principal investigator of the Healthy Minds survey, is the “saturation approach” to mental health training and education, “meaning that every single student, faculty and staff [member] should have a basic knowledge about the signs and symptoms to look out for in themselves and in others.” There should be, she said, “no wrong door” to knock on.
That’s easier said than done, said Scott Bass, a professor of public policy at American University and author of Administratively Adrift (Cambridge University Press). The siloed system of higher education makes it difficult—sometimes illegal—for different individuals in a student’s orbit to share information with one another.
“The faculty are willing to help, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “And certainly faculty are an important part, but by no means are they a universal solution. The scope of the problem is bigger than the faculty member in the classroom. If we trained all the faculty, I can assure you, we would have a better environment, but [we would] not solve the larger environmental problem deeply entrenched in our organization.”
In the meantime, individual professors will continue to grapple with the issue in their classrooms. Mozafari said he started taking mental health more seriously when his own suffered after the death of a friend during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other things, he said, he added regular student “mental health days” to his Cornell courses, in which students don’t have to attend class but are asked to eat at least two meals, sleep for eight hours and go for a walk. Sometimes he also gives assignments like “write an email to somebody expressing that you need some time off,” he said.
Whether or not such gestures have a direct impact on student mental health, “one of the things that it does do is show students that I care about their well-being,” he said. “They really do appreciate that.”