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Teacher takes time to walk and talk with teen

Faculty and staff members often refer students to other resources on campus to support their mental health, a study of Iowa community college personnel found.

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Faculty and staff members are increasingly being called upon to help students with their mental health, addressing stress, anxiety and depression, among other challenges. In a January survey of faculty members, 76 percent said they believe supporting students’ mental health is a job expectation.

Similarly, research from the University of Iowa, published in August, found overwhelmingly that staff and faculty from Iowa community colleges feel a responsibility to support their students’ mental health and wellness through modeling behaviors and referring them to campus resources. However, fewer employees were confident in their ability to do so.

Colleges and universities should provide their staff and faculty with resources and training to direct learners to the appropriate places to address concerns, as well as invest in messaging and services that benefit their own health and wellness, according to the report.

The background: The University of Iowa established the Scanlan Center for School Mental Health, housed in the College of Education, in 2021 to evaluate mental health in Iowa’s K-12 and higher education spaces. The Scanlan Center supports Iowa’s educators, and Barry Schreier, the center’s director of higher education programming, uses the metaphor of a shared pathway—the mental health of administrators impacts faculty and staff, which in turn impacts students, so investing from the top down benefits all parties.

The study: In the spring 2023 survey conducted by the University of Iowa, 1,135 faculty and staff members from seven community colleges in Iowa were asked about their own mental health and wellness and interactions with students. (The average campus response rate was just under 30 percent.)

  • Some faculty and staff are struggling. Among survey respondents, 30 percent had symptoms consistent with depression and 29 percent had symptoms consistent with clinically significant levels of anxiety, which is on trend with national levels, Schreier says. Additionally, 15 percent reported moderate burnout and 30 percent had high levels of burnout.
  • The majority of respondents experience flourishing. The Scanlan Center’s survey was the first to gauge faculty and staff flourishing behaviors in a wide-scale way and found 88 percent of faculty and staff feel competent and capable, and 87 percent believe they are good people who live good lives. Similarly, respondents feel they actively contribute to the happiness and well-being of others (78 percent), and their social relationships are supportive and rewarding (75 percent).
  • Most personnel talk mental health with students. Most participants (97 percent) reported it is important for them to model positive health and wellness behavior to students. Over half of respondents indicated they had conversations with between one and four students about their mental health, and three-quarters have referred students to mental health resources.
  • Hesitancy comes from being underprepared. When asked why they may not reach out to a student who may be experiencing emotional or mental distress, faculty and staff said they believe someone else may be better suited to do so (23 percent), they don’t want to make students uncomfortable (22 percent) or they’re unsure of what exactly to say (21 percent).
  • Training needed. Mental health gatekeeper training provides individuals with information like risk factors and how to hold conversations with people struggling with mental health. A quarter of respondents said their institution did not offer mental health gatekeeper trainings for faculty or staff, and half did not know if it was offered. Only 30 percent of respondents had ever participated in a mental health gatekeeper training program.

The center plans to re-administer the survey this spring and collect annual data toward the end of each academic year, Schreier says. The next survey will have closer to a dozen institutions participating, with additional colleges and universities across the state represented.

Recommendations: Over all, the survey showed there is a greater need for mental health supports and visibility around what services are available to students, faculty and staff, Schreier says. Based on the survey’s findings, University of Iowa researchers recommend the following improvements at community colleges.

  1. Create a resource guide. Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of respondents said they want a list of all mental health resources available to students through the institution. Institutional leaders can create a website, app or paper guide to help personnel identify support resources available. Best practices for the guide would to be include searchable functionality for desired services, who can access the resource, any fees and where the service provider is located on and off campus. This can help connect all campus stakeholders in accessing help.
  2. Invest in confidentiality and gatekeeper training. Some survey respondents (16 percent) were unsure of their role in confidentiality if a student expresses thoughts of suicide. Forty-one percent of survey respondents want suicide-prevention training. Campus leaders should organize trainings on confidentiality as it pertains to FERPA and the Clery Act when students share mental health information. If a college opts to create a gatekeeper training program, respondents say it should include information on how to help students through everyday stressors (50 percent), have participation included as paid time (49 percent), be 30 minutes or shorter in length (30 percent) and be delivered online (26 percent). A quarter of respondents think the training should be required by the institution, as well.
  3. Establish a resource referral tree. In addition to highlighting what services are available, faculty and staff can benefit from a decision tree that helps in making referrals to colleagues around campus. This can help with access and outcomes through streamlining the referral process.
  4. Share information on flourishing. Many campuses promote communication on mental health and well-being concerns and supports, but regular messaging on flourishing and how faculty and staff are thriving can also benefit the campus community. “Most people don’t message on that … it’s less sexy to say that we’re doing well,” Schreier admits, but it’s a critical piece of information to promote healthy living.
  5. Prioritize faculty and staff well-being. Nine percent of survey participants said their institution did not provide counseling services to faculty and staff, and 15 percent did not have access to well-being services, as well. College leaders should address faculty and staff mental health through providing institutional resources and services.
  6. Disaggregate data. While the Scanlan Center’s survey had minimal representation from minoritized ethnic/racial backgrounds and among gender and sexual minorities (nonbinary, transgender, multiple gender identities), there was a trend in the data that women and minoritized identities feel a greater responsibility to support student mental health, compared to majority colleagues.

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