What can we do as faculty to help students navigate stress and mental health challenges? Earlier this semester, the CfT and the Order of the Gown co-sponsored a panel discussion in which students shared their experiences and offered some insights. Over the course of the conversation, a couple of key themes emerged:
- Faculty can help by recognizing that students are human beings with lives outside the classroom, and by acknowledging that the same is true for professors too. Students on the panel spoke about how much they appreciated it when professors explicitly recognized that it is possible to get knocked off course by illness, mental health concerns, family emergencies, and other factors, and offered a reasonable degree of flexibility where necessary. (Different kinds of classes may require different kinds of attendance policy, but being able to take a set number of unexcused absences without penalty was mentioned as one example of a helpful measure that some professors adopt.) Students also talked about how much it meant to them to be reminded that their faculty were human beings too. Of course, all of us will have our own boundaries concerning what we’re prepared to share with our students, but in the right context, acknowledging our own vulnerabilities may be a powerful way of connecting with students and modeling resilience in the face of challenging circumstances.
- Students often feel anxious or even ashamed about asking for help, and do not want to be seen as “making excuses”. In the conversation during the session, some faculty attendees shared their experiences of students simply “disappearing” from their classes: not showing up, not responding to email, etc. In response, one panelist admitted: “Last semester, I was probably one of those students.” One of the reasons she did not reply to her professor’s emails, she continued, was that she felt ashamed about having missed classes and assignments, and was worried that her professor thought that she simply did not care about the class. Other students agreed that these feelings of shame were a significant obstacle to reaching out for help when it was needed. In the subsequent discussion, it became clear that taking a non-judgmental approach may be one of the most powerful things that faculty can do to improve communication with students. Absences and missed assignments have consequences, of course, and it is part of the job of a professor to set clear expectations and help students to understand what they need to do in order to succeed in a class. However, avoiding a moralized approach to such issues—which is to say, making sure that students know that when they miss a class we do not jump immediately to the conclusion that they don’t care about us or our subject—may help encourage students to reach out for help when they need it.
(Note: Although there is a great deal that we can do as faculty to support students, it is also important for us not to go beyond the limits of our expertise in dealing with students experiencing mental health challenges. If you have a concern about a particular student, you can fill out a CARE team report here, or find out more about CAPS services here.)