Faculty Are Gatekeepers of Student Mental Health.
Faculty Are Gatekeepers of Student Mental Health
A new report found that a majority of faculty are eager to support students in mental and emotional health distress, but they lack guidance from their institutions on how to best help them.
Nearly 80 percent of higher education faculty report dealing with student mental health issues and almost 90 percent of faculty believe those issues have worsened during the pandemic, according to a new survey led by a School of Public Health researcher.
However, the survey found that less than 30 percent of faculty have received training from their academic institutions to handle these issues, even though almost 70 percent say they would welcome this guidance and are eager to strengthen their support for students experiencing mental or emotional health challenges.
These findings, detailed in a first-of-its-kind report titled The Role of Faculty in Student Mental Health, underscore faculty’s growing involvement in the health and wellbeing of students and their willingness to serve as mental health “gatekeepers”—a role that has become increasingly important as students continue to navigate online learning, social isolation, and other COVID-19-related stressors. Of the 87.2 percent of faculty who believe that student mental health has worsened since the pandemic began, almost half—42.8 percent—believe that it has “significantly worsened,” while 44.4 percent think that it has “somewhat worsened.”
The pilot survey was administered during the spring 2021 semester to almost 1,700 faculty members at 12 colleges and universities nationwide. The results indicate that more work needs to be done on campuses to enable faculty to identify and refer students in mental distress.
“These data make it clear that college and university faculty members are attuned to the mental health needs of their students,” says Sarah Ketchen Lipson, an assistant professor of health law, policy & management and principal investigator of the survey, which was funded by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and conducted in partnership with the Mary Christie Institute and the Healthy Minds Network.
Importantly, Lipson says, while 75 percent of faculty reported that they would reach out to a student in mental or emotional distress, only 51 percent were confident that they could recognize signs of student mental distress. More than 60 percent of faculty believe that it should be mandatory for institutions to provide basic training on handling student mental health, and faculty want additional resources such as a checklist of warning signs, guides for how to initiate conversations, and a list of available mental health resources.
“The vast majority of faculty members, myself included, are not trained mental health professionals, but we have a role to play in supporting student wellbeing,” Lipson says. “These data underscore a real opportunity to better equip faculty with knowledge and basic skills to support and refer students.”
The survey also found that while 55 percent of faculty believe their institutions are welcoming or somewhat welcoming towards students of color, 58 percent of Hispanic or Latinx faculty and 39 percent of Black or African American faculty believe their institution is hostile or somewhat hostile towards students of color. These results indicate that institutions should not only make campuses more inclusive for students, but also build the level trust needed among faculty of color to refer students to campus resources, the report said.
Another key survey finding: more than 1 in 5 faculty members said that students’ mental health has taken a toll on their own mental health. Almost half of respondents said that their institution should invest more in supporting faculty mental health and wellbeing.
“Data are powerful in creating change in higher education, and for so long, there has been a lack of national data on the mental health of college and university faculty,” says Lipson. “I am hopeful that our new research in this area will raise awareness of the reality that many faculty members are struggling with their own mental and emotional health. I hope that investments in new resources to support faculty wellbeing will yield benefits not only to individual faculty members, but also to students and institutions writ large.”
She says that she has benefitted from Boston University’s mental health resources, which helped her find a therapist.
“I know that I am a better teacher, advisor, and colleague because I am able to prioritize my own mental health in a way that meets my needs,” says Lipson.
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