A Friend at the Front of the Room

Faculty members need to get more involved in helping students with mental health challenges, write engineering professors and deans Steven W. McLaughlin, Alec D. Gallimore and Robert D. Braun.

December 2, 2019
 
 
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Like many other higher education institutions in the United States, our three colleges are in the midst of a student mental health crisis. And while some may wonder why colleges are feeling the impact so dramatically, the fact remains that the age group where these symptoms often first manifest is the 18- to 21-year-old range -- our undergraduate student population.

The young people in our classrooms today are more anxious and overwhelmed than ever. National studies demonstrate the significance of mental health challenges among our students. Last year, the American College Health Association reported that two of every five college students felt so depressed they had difficulty functioning, and one in five had attempted to end their life. Nationally, suicide is the leading cause of death among men of college age. During this last academic year, the loss of students in each of our own communities reminded us that these are not mere statistics but real people with real struggles. We found ourselves too often commiserating with each other over these tragedies and brainstorming about new ways to help our students. We realized that conversations among deans were no longer enough; we wanted to make a statement that all of us in higher education must take a stand to assist with student mental health.

To their credit, universities like ours are responding with a broad range of awareness campaigns, expanded counseling services and cultivated peer support. Some colleges are embedding counselors inside academic departments to bring them closer to students. But studies make clear that counseling centers are not enough.

Now it’s time for those who already play a vital role in the development of our students -- those of us who are professors -- to get even more involved.

As deans and professors of engineering, we’ve personally experienced the distinct vantage point of faculty members. We see the demeanor of students, week in and week out. We’re in an exceptional position to spot rising absenteeism or declining performance, to recognize key signs that a student is struggling or that something isn’t quite right. And we often have an outsize role in a student’s feelings of self-worth, value and growth.

Many faculty members are happy to embrace this additional responsibility. But spotting personal struggle and taking action isn’t usually in the job description. In addition, intervening doesn’t come easily. But here’s the reality: the classroom is the one place where every student shows up, and it might well be the place where we can turn the tide of mental health on campus.

Preparation can help, and colleges are offering just that. For example, the University of Michigan publishes online advice to the faculty covering about a dozen common student mental health scenarios and how to handle them. The university also invites faculty to consult, one on one, with a professional counselor. At Georgia Tech, a new easy-to-follow guide to identifying and dealing with a student in distress went out to all faculty members at the beginning of the fall semester. The University of Colorado Boulder trains faculty to support student resiliency and has developed a values statement that clearly communicates to students that the faculty and staff are there for them.

We suggest all campuses embrace these ideas and others. Here are a few ways colleges and universities can engage faculty in this crucial effort.

Encourage all faculty members to build skills through training programs like QPR. The program -- Question. Persuade. Refer. -- prepares participants to recognize the warning signs of suicide and know how to offer hope and get help for the person in crisis. At Georgia Tech, QPR and other training is available to departments or schools on request and to the entire campus community several times each semester through the Tech Ends Suicide Together initiative.

Begin the conversation about student mental health at new faculty orientation. Such a dialogue provides initial guidance on what faculty may experience in the classroom and what resources are available to them. The University of Connecticut created its Connection Is Prevention program to help new faculty understand the continuum of student distress, spot students in trouble and respond.

Continue the conversation through faculty mentoring programs, with focused sessions on student mental health that teach best practices. The University of Michigan Dearborn has a robust program in which seasoned professors provide guidance and counsel to less experienced faculty on a wide range of topics, among them student mental health issues. A checklist of best practices for these mentoring sessions includes discussions about teaching issues and advising students.

Evaluate the disincentives that prevent faculty members from taking a more active role and remove those roadblocks. Many faculty members are uncomfortable or unwilling to add a mental health dimension, no matter how small, to their classroom. Leaders must continue to raise awareness among their colleagues and provide resources that reduce these friction points. For example, the University of Wisconsin Madison provides faculty with a syllabus statement about mental health as well as sample emails and tips for talking about suicide in the classroom.

We are not advocating that professors accept the full responsibility of “fixing” what has clearly become a national epidemic. Rather, we’re encouraging our colleagues -- the important individuals at the front of the classroom -- to join these existing efforts and help us create new ones. And we’re encouraging fellow deans of all disciplines to step up: make student mental health a priority for your faculty and implement programs and tactics that engage them in the essential work of helping our students succeed, despite their struggles.

We are doing just that -- and we’re committed to finding ways to do more. Of course, we have the good fortune to work at institutions that are creating cultures of unfailing support for students. Some campuses are just beginning to undertake such efforts.

To them, we stress that faculty can play a highly influential role in helping all students cope with the rigors of education and achieve their full potential. This capitalizes on the talent on our campuses and marshals every resource for the common good. And it’s the right thing to do.

Bio

Steven W. McLaughlin is dean of Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering. Alec D. Gallimore is dean of the University of Michigan College of Engineering. Robert D. Braun is dean of the University of Colorado College of Engineering and Applied Science.

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