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Students walk on the University of California, Irvine, campus

The University of California, Irvine, offers support initiatives to educate faculty on how to engage with students on mental health issues.

Steve Zylius/University of California, Irvine

As student mental health concerns grow, faculty members are feeling pressure to provide them with support.

A January survey from TimelyCare found 76 percent of faculty members believe supporting students’ mental health is a job expectation. This mirrors students’ expectations, with 45 percent of respondents to a 2023 Student Voice survey by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse saying they believe professors have a responsibility to help students struggling with their mental health.

Three in four faculty members surveyed by TimelyCare say they feel confident in helping students navigate campus mental health resources, but the same number would like more training or support in this area.

The University of California, Irvine, established the Faculty and Staff Support Services office in 2016 to provide additional resources for faculty members regarding behavioral health issues, crisis intervention, case management and instructional trainings around well-being.

A faculty aid: Initially, the office was launched to provide one-on-one help and consultation to faculty and staff members for their own issues, but it became evident that employees also wanted resources and education on how to better support their students.

“I think we definitely understood through the pandemic, much more than we ever did before, that faculty wellness and student wellness are not in opposition to each other any longer; there’s a lot of synergy there that if our faculty are unwell, our students are probably not going to do well,” program director Negar Shekarabi says.

Most often, however, professors will deal with a distressed student who is struggling in multiple facets of life. “It’s not always evident that they’re struggling with their mental health necessarily—they might be struggling academically because they’re experiencing housing insecurity or food insecurity and all sorts of things are bubbling up,” Shekarabi says.

Creating resources: The goal is to make faculty members feel comfortable engaging in a difficult conversation with a struggling student to understand the greatest need and provide a helpful referral.

“Not every student who’s struggling has to go to the counseling center,” Shekarabi says. “I’m still helping faculty feel more of a sense of competence in sitting in those conversations with students to ask a few more questions, to understand the situation better.”

Much of the training and resources Shekarabi provides offer faculty a space to practice engaging with a student, considering what they could say and building their comfort and competence.

At present, UCI offers trainings on suicide prevention, assisting students in distress and integrating well-being concepts into learning environments.

Strategies to Talk Mental Health

Five creative ways for faculty members to facilitate conversations around student wellness and stress include:

  1. Mental health days and reflection exercises create built-in breaks for learners to invest in self-care.
  2. A mindfulness writing exercise helps students who struggle with negative self-talk think critically about their interests and how they can invest in themselves.
  3. Academic courses focused on student wellness and flourishing provide a natural forum for discussions around resources for mental health.
  4. Short-form polls offered at the beginning of class give faculty insight into their students’ mental health throughout the term and create space to address concerns.
  5. The course syllabus can function as a resource guide and show a professor’s care and regard for their students.

Scaling up: Newer to the institution is Mental Health First Aid training, which is offered exclusively to faculty and staff to help them identify and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders. UCI has trained 21 mental health first aid instructors since 2021; the instructors offer twice-monthly virtual training to up to 30 community members looking to be certified.

Around 700 faculty and staff members across units and departments at UCI have completed the training, and even more have completed a shorter, one-hour overview that provides practical takeaways for those who can’t devote an entire day to certification.

The university’s Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation hired a pedagogical wellness specialist, Theresa Duong, in 2022 to train faculty and instructors on creating classroom environments that prioritize well-being.

“Often those types of questions about pedagogical wellness might have defaulted to my office; she’s really just focused on that for faculty,” Shekarabi says. “It creates a new channel, a new referral source for my office … I can send them to Theresa to help them work through some solutions in the classroom.”

The university will also launch the Institute for Pedagogical Wellness this spring to help instructors and graduate students infuse elements of well-being into the curriculum.

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