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Leena Varona plans to graduate from Borough of Manhattan Community College of the City University of New York next week with an associate degree in liberal arts. Her path to graduation wasn’t the quick, direct route she imagined it would be when she first enrolled in 2019: she had to withdraw from classes several times and often doubted her abilities.
So what—or better yet, who—helped push Varona, 48, over the finish line? A mental health counselor at BMCC has been a crucial support, as Varona has bipolar disorder and continues to grieve the loss of family members who died from COVID-19. But after counseling, Varona credits many of her professors with believing in her even when she didn’t.
In one example from this spring, Varona approached a professor to say she was struggling with writing a required 500-word paper. The professor told her to just start writing and to write as much as she could. She also emailed Varona an article about conquering procrastination.
“That was a great encouragement for me,” Varona recalls. “When she said that, I came home and started working on that assignment. And to my surprise, I ended up with a 600-word paper, which was more than she wanted.”
In the Professor’s Purview
According to the recent Student Voice survey on health and wellness, professors are the No. 1 group on campus that students over all say have a responsibility to help them ease their stress. This puts professors ahead of even campus counselors, advisers, peers, administrators and others, with 42 percent of students over all (n=3,000) saying professors have this responsibility. The number shrinks to 33 percent when looking at community college students only (n=599). But it grows when looking at other groups, including students at private nonprofit institutions (47 percent) and students with physical disabilities or chronic illnesses (48 percent).
Just three in 10 survey respondents over all say easing stress is only the student’s responsibility.
Asked who on campus besides counseling center staff members has a responsibility to help students struggling with their mental health (not just stress), 45 percent of students say professors. This is consistent across institution types. Half of students with physical disabilities or chronic illnesses and nearly half of students with mental health conditions (n=1,079) say professors have this responsibility.
For this question, just 16 percent of students say it’s only the student’s responsibility.
There remains some debate as to whether and to what degree student stress and mental health concerns are within the faculty purview (which is otherwise expanding).
One professor, who did not want to be identified by name for this story, says that much depends on the institutional context: at small liberal arts colleges, for example, “where class sizes are small, or at other institutions where the culture is specifically this, professors cater to students’ needs. But this is not the culture or educational mission everywhere. Students need to step up and take responsibility as adults.”
This isn’t an isolated position. But there’s a growing consensus, especially among college mental health researchers and student success advocates, that professors have a role to play in promoting student well-being—and the Student Voice data show that close to half of students agree.
Sarah Ketchen Lipson, assistant professor of health law policy and management at Boston University and principal investigator of the Healthy Minds Network, says that in her work promoting collegiate mental health, “I don’t spend much time thinking about the faculty members who would be highly, highly resistant to making changes, because there’s so much opportunity where faculty could be and are really open to playing a role.” According to Healthy Minds’ own survey data, for instance, about 80 percent of faculty members say that they’ve had a one-on-one conversation with a student in the past year about the student’s mental health.
“We know that these conversations are already happening.”
At the same time, many faculty members say they don’t feel confident in dealing with students experiencing mental health problems, she adds. This reveals opportunities for training—and Lipson says training should begin with a clear statement that faculty members aren’t expected to be mental health professionals.
Doing Their Part
Regarding training, and given the scale of college mental health concerns, Lipson advocates a “saturation approach,” in which every student, faculty and staff member is regularly trained “in basic understanding of the signs and symptoms of mental health problems, the resources that exist on campus, how to make a referral, and the signs and symptoms that a faculty member is going to be privy to, because that looks different than what someone in, you know, financial aid might be able to see.”
Professors, in particular, merit opportunities to think about how their classrooms and pedagogical decisions can shape student well-being, Lipson continues. “There are intentional ways that you can shift things that don’t jeopardize student learning outcomes or the rigor of classes, if we are even using that word ‘rigor’ anymore.”
Case in point: what time assignments are due. Lipson says that if faculty members set a midnight deadline, many students are going to work late into the evening, sacrificing rest. Similarly, with a 9 a.m. deadline, many students will pull an all-nighter. So Lipson likes 5 p.m. deadlines, and telling students why.
“I really encourage faculty to point out, ‘I am doing my part in these small ways to support your well-being, and one of those ways is that assignments are due at 5 p.m. That’s because I want you to have dinner; I want you to sleep. I don’t want this class to interfere with your well-being.’ It’s as much about the policy as it is about the communication and intentionality behind the policy.”
Other examples of what Lipson calls “low-hanging fruit” for promoting student well-being include making sure that students’ course grades don’t derive from a single high-stakes (and high-stress) exam or assignment, and giving students an opportunity to interact in the classroom as a means of building community, or belonging.
Varona, at BMCC, says she agrees that “it’s not the professor’s job to counsel anyone with their personal issues. They have a job to do, and I think their job is stressful enough, right?” A little awareness and “empathy” go a long way, though, she adds.
For example, Varona appreciates when professors include mental health resources or stress-reduction strategies in their syllabi (she first found out about counseling at BMCC in this way).
“Basically, every one of my professors has told their students that if you need help, do not hesitate.”
How do you or colleagues promote student well-being in the classroom? Let us know.