Insights from Interviews on the Role of Faculty in Student Mental Health
Amid the pandemic, faculty have played an outsized and unprecedented role in student mental wellbeing. Throughout the 2020-2021 academic year, professors often represented the only contact students had with their colleges or universities. Some faculty have embraced this new role, incorporating new policies and practices into their classes that acknowledge and safeguard their students’ mental health and wellbeing. Decisions by others have exacerbated stress or other issues their students are experiencing.
To better understand students’ perspectives on the role that faculty play in mental wellbeing, the Mary Christie Institute conducted interviews with nine current undergraduates from six different colleges and universities over the summer of 2021. The interviews helped shape the MCI Faculty Guide on Student Mental Health, released last month. They also provided keen insights into how classroom dynamics affect mental health and what support students want from faculty, even as their professors may be unaware of these expectations.
Students expressed a variety of views on topics including: what they wished professors knew about mental health, top issues that affect their mental health, under-discussed issues between faculty and students, practices implemented by professors to alleviate stress and aid mental wellbeing, concerns about returning to campus, and stressors outside academics. A summary of their insights is below.
On What They Wish Professors Knew
The students interviewed by MCI described various topics they wish their professors knew more about, including the following: mental health distress indicators, the benefits of accommodations and how to provide them, how to have conversations about mental health, when and how to refer students to counseling services, and how to implement online classes to make them more engaging. Students also said they wished their professors understood that pressures outside of class take up students’ time and energy, and that lack of flexibility on assignments is stressful.
“I wish professors knew that sometimes, a deadline is akin to a world of stress.”
“I wish there was more of a spoken understanding by professors that poor performance in their class is not the only valuable or important indicator of student mental health.”
“Faculty efforts can be preventative, as well as reparative.”
Issues Affecting Students’ Mental Health
Students largely agreed that academic workload, burnout, and trying to balance academics with extracurriculars and social needs were powerful dynamics driving stress and poor mental health. They also listed the burden of student activism, relationship issues, body image, poor sleep, COVID, current events, and worries about their futures as top issues affecting their mental health.
“Major stressors? Having to juggle major academic assignments (or just keeping up with the work generally), socializing (potential issues with friends or roommates, or even just finding the time for it), and extracurriculars.”
Subjects That Should be Discussed More Between Faculty and Students
Several students shared that they wished faculty would acknowledge subjects outside the classroom – both their students’ personal lives and events happening around the world. Other students wish that their professors would be more vulnerable and relatable – sharing about their own mental health, or their journey to becoming a professor.
“They don’t have authentic conversations with their students about mental health.”
“Some but not all faculty members acknowledge students’ lives outside of the classroom in a way that recognizes the various other sources of stress that complicate their lives.”
“Mental health really depends on outside factors such as stress, politics, etc.”
“If faculty don’t make it clear that they welcome conversations that extend beyond academic content, many students probably assume it is inappropriate for them to discuss those matters with their professor.”
Helpful Practices Implemented by Faculty
Students in the MCI interviews listed policies and practices implemented by faculty that have helped them maintain their mental wellbeing and alleviate stress. Students found it helpful when faculty adjusted their expectations around academics by scaling grades for tests or projects, offering flexible deadlines, or providing extra credit options. They also appreciated when professors checked in with them one-on-one through office hours or via email, scheduled wellness days throughout the semester, and provided advanced trigger warnings for sensitive subject matters.
“I appreciate when professors make an effort to check in with students before each class or take it upon themselves to schedule/require a meeting at the beginning of the semester to meet each student one-on-one. I also think when professors make themselves approachable for extensions, I feel more supported and less anxious about each individual assignment.”
“Generally, it’s helpful when professors meet me halfway instead of making me meet arbitrary deadlines.”
“One professor held a weekly discussion on a goal we would like to reach and the steps we are taking towards it.”
“Offering wellness days, periodically throughout the semester, to ensure students could catch up on sleep, assignments, and have a day to promote their mental health.”
Concerns About Returning to Campus
Students were largely worried about the emotional toll of returning to campus: re-adjusting to the social environment, working collaboratively with other students, being “on” all the time, and becoming busy again after a year of slowing down. They also worried about increased pressure from faculty, and that they may drop accommodations made during online learning.
“It will take some time to readjust, no doubt. Definitely worried about being perceived.”
“I think many students will be emotionally exhausted (potentially in ways that they don’t even recognize) when they return to school this fall. I worry about being quickly burnt out by the effects of jumping back into in-person classes and drastically changing my routine from the last 18 months so that I have to be “on” all the time again (academically, socially, emotionally).”
“The socializing aspect and seeing everyone in person makes me very anxious.”
“Just because we’re back on campus, doesn’t mean that everything is the same as it was before the pandemic. Considerations still need to be made for the difficulties students may face when learning in a high-pressure environment.”
Finding Balance in College
Students were mixed in their opinions of whether faculty understand students’ outside pressures and acknowledge the need for balance between their coursework and other responsibilities. Most agreed that it depends on the professor; One student argued that individual actors cannot alone create balance for students, and that balance can only be created with a systems-level change.
“I think they do, but it’s hard to believe that they actually care when you’re feeling unbalanced during the semester.”
“I think most faculty acknowledge the need for balance, but it’s hard for them as just one stakeholder to create it…I think the better question is whether institutions – like individual departments that coordinate the workload of entire majors – understand how to produce balance in their curricula at a high level…The knowledge of the need for balance by individual actors is not sufficient to actually lead to balance itself.”
“Some do, some don’t. I believe there are some classes that are needlessly hard for the level or number of credits they are at. I definitely have a variety of other pressures, career being one of them, and it can get very hard to handle on top of classes…”