Mental health concerns on campus: What faculty can do

There are steps you can take even if you’re uncertain about the best response.
By Anita Dennis

Editor’s note: We thank Richard Tyler-Walker, Ph.D., president of the American College Counseling Association and associate director of operations and training at the N.C. State University Counseling Center, for reviewing this article.

What can faculty members do when they are concerned that a student may be struggling with mental health issues? It’s difficult to know when, how, or even whether to step in. In this situation, faculty may worry that they are misunderstanding the situation, that they’re infringing on students’ privacy, or that their efforts may seem nosy or may inadvertently worsen the problem.

Eighty percent of college and university presidents said student mental health has become more of a priority on campus than it was three years ago, according to an American Council on Education study. And 82% agreed or strongly agreed that their faculty were spending more time on student mental health concerns.

Though counselors and other professionals are best positioned to deal with students’ mental health issues, there are still appropriate things faculty can do in light of rising student mental health concerns.

Recognize the signs. Faculty members aren’t expected to diagnose or address mental health issues, but they do see students regularly in their classrooms and can be among the first people to notice something is wrong. “You can recognize that someone is in distress,” noted Audrey Gramling, CPA, Ph.D., professor, department head, and Wilton T. Anderson chair, Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.

Common warning signs may include being disheveled, distracted, or asleep in class; not coming to class; not performing up to previous levels or expectations; or not being engaged in the usual way, according to Anthony Rostain, M.D., co-author of The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years. “Any change in normal demeanor may be a sign something isn’t right,” he said.

The website of the JED Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to prevent suicide and promote better mental health among young people, contains helpful information on mental illness and what you can do if you’re concerned about someone you know.

Understand the difference between discomfort and pain. Everyone who has ever taken on a demanding course of study has likely faced some challenges, but there is a difference between feeling a little overwhelmed and facing serious mental health issues, noted Amy Wittmayer, the managing director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Master of Accounting program.

“Students should have high standards and stretch themselves,” she said. “We need to recognize, though, when it’s outside the bounds of discomfort.” Indicators might include mood changes, references to feelings of hopelessness or apparent disruptions in the student’s life. “That’s a nuance faculty should be aware of,” she said. A student’s situation may need to be addressed if it is interrupting their daily life or if they are experiencing mood changes or a feeling of helplessness, she advised.

Check in. A first step can be to reach out to a student who seems to be struggling. They may deny that there is a problem if asked directly, Gramling said, but there are other ways to show concern and perhaps open a dialogue. “You can send an email saying you’ve noticed they haven’t been in class and were wondering if anything is going on,” she suggested. Taking an interest in them beyond the classroom can make a difference.

Identify and refer students to university resources. To be ready when a problem arises, consider visiting the counseling center or similar facility to know what’s available and keep brochures or contact details about the program on hand. In addition, “at some schools, faculty members may be able to alert mental health services about a student they feel is overwhelmed” via email or phone call, sometimes anonymously, Gramling said.

Wittmayer noted that many schools offer free mental health first aid training for faculty and staff. It usually lasts one day and reviews common mental health issues, including different conditions and how they present.

Some departments themselves are proactive about making mental health part of the conversation. The UNC-Chapel Hill Master of Accounting program includes a case study on the signs and symptoms of mental health issues in students’ orientation materials, Wittmayer said. It covers a hypothetical scenario of a struggling student, then encourages students to recognize the signs of mental health issues in themselves and others. The intention is to reassure students who have worked hard to get into the school and may be reluctant to show weakness that anyone can suffer from such problems.

Faculty should also be aware of resources outside their universities, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) and Suicide Awareness Voices of Education.

Show you care, especially in crunch times. As exams approach, Gramling uses her weekly “Greetings from Gramling” email to offer tips on dealing with stress. To minimize any possible stigma, she talks about anxiety as a completely normal concern, and she sends the email to around 700 students, so no one feels singled out.

Faculty can also start classes by asking how the students are doing, she said. “It makes a difference that someone wants to know how they are,” she said.  

In addition to getting up to speed on the mental health services available to students, Gramling also recommends that faculty members share that knowledge with their colleagues. The more faculty members who are aware of campus resources, the more likely students will be to get the help they need.

Anita Dennis is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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