Dr. Sarah Kelchen Lipson

Student Mental Health and Faculty: Q&A With Dr. Sarah Kelchen Lipson of the Health Minds Study

Student mental health is a growing issue at colleges and universities. There is a rising prevalence of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, suicidality, and other concerns in student populations over the past decade. According to the Healthy Minds Study, in fall 2020, nearly 50% of students nationwide had clinically-significant symptoms of depression and/or anxiety. Given the state of mental health in college student populations, there is a need to identify students in distress and to help those in need connect with helpful resources.

While most faculty members are not clinicians, college and university professors can play an essential role in supporting students, says Dr. Sarah Kelchen Lipson, co-Principal Investigator of the Healthy Minds Study. Some ways to support students involve simple, practical steps from faculty; telling students you care about their success, sharing mental health resources in the syllabi, and even setting deadlines to discourage all-nighters are just a few examples. “We know that students’ mental health affects their academic performance, and faculty are uniquely positioned to recognize and support students in distress.”

Faculty Resource: Creating a Culture of Caring [PDF]

Lipson, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Law Policy and Management at the Boston University School of Public Health, is now focusing her mental health research on faculty as well. Earlier this year, Lipson and her team published a first-of-its-kind national survey of faculty to better understand their perspectives on student mental health and their own wellbeing. The report, The Role of Faculty in Student Mental Health, shows that the majority of faculty are playing a significant role and having conversations with students about mental health, but many faculty feel ill-equipped and lack the tools and resources to support students. The report also finds that faculty’s own mental health has taken a toll during the pandemic. 

Last year, ACUE and Active Minds, the nation’s premier nonprofit organization supporting mental health promotion and education for young adults, teamed up to release Creating a Culture of Caring: Practical Approaches for College and University Faculty to Support Student Wellbeing and Mental Health. The report highlights the important role that faculty can play and offers an important resource to complement institutional resources. 

We’re excited to continue this important conversation with an interview with Lipson, who shares insights from her research and on the connection between academic performance and student mental health.

What is the current state of student mental health in college? 

We’ve seen an increasing prevalence of mental problems, which includes symptoms of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, non-suicidal self-injury, and suicidal ideation. Over the last five years in particular we’ve seen a sharp increase in prevalence rates. There has been some discussion that the pandemic has dramatically increased prevalence rates, but that’s not what we see in the Healthy Minds data. Instead, we see a continuation of a really troubling trend. 

We also cannot talk about the state of student mental health without talking about the large inequalities that exist. Inequalities are most pronounced when we talk about who is and who isn’t getting help. It’s true that more students are seeking help, but there is still a significant level of unmet mental health needs. Students of color, low-income, first-generation students, on average, have much lower rates of seeking help. 

How does this affect student academic performance? 

We know that mental health is a really important predictor of academic performance. Work lead by my colleague Daniel Eisenberg has shown that symptoms of depression are associated with a two-fold increase in the likelihood of a student’s decision to drop out or stop out, of college without graduating. And more than ever, students are reporting that mental health has impaired their academic performance. In fall 2020 Healthy Minds data, we saw the highest rates of students saying their mental health has negatively affected their academic performance. Over 80% of students said that their mental health has negatively affected their academics in the last month.

From an equity perspective, we also know that many of the students who aren’t receiving mental health support and services are the same students who, on average, are the least likely to persist in higher education: students of color and first-generation, low-income students. So we have these two parallel national dialogues around equity in persistence and equity in mental health. We really need to bring those together.

What are some of the biggest and most important findings from your latest study? 

Faculty are uniquely positioned to recognize students in distress. 

We know there has been very little research on the perspective of faculty, despite the fact that they’re in a unique position. For students, having a faculty member that they can trust, having a faculty member who is supportive, that is one of the strongest predictors of retention and academic success. It’s also likely to be an important predictor of their mental health as well. 

Read More: 4 Ways Faculty Can Be Allies for College Student Mental Health

The survey showed that faculty are concerned about their students’ mental health, and about 80% reported that they’re already having conversations with students about mental health. But only about half of faculty said they feel confident being able to recognize when a student is in distress.  And one of the key findings for campus leaders is that there is significant interest among faculty – 75% – in receiving practical professional development to help them better support students’ mental health in the classroom.

We also learned about faculty member’s own mental health needs. In the pandemic, so many of the safety nets that typically exist on a college campus–athletic coaches, peers, residence hall staff–were suddenly gone. All these different stakeholders normally have eyes and ears on the ground and it was faculty who were some of the only people who were left. From my own experience, from talking with colleagues, and then from this survey data, that takes a toll. It is a lot to realize that you’re maybe the only person in a student’s life who can recognize that they’re struggling. 

Additionally, about 50% of faculty reported one or more symptoms of depression, and many faculty, particularly faculty members of color, noted that supporting student mental health has taken a toll on their own mental health.

Read More: Faculty Can’t Pour From an Empty Cup

What are some practical things that faculty can start (or stop) doing to support student mental health? 

There are a number of low-hanging fruit approaches, so to speak. 

First, just telling students that you care about their well-being. You can do this at the start of a class, by reminding them that you want them to be successful. This humanizing approach to teaching, I think, goes a long way with students. 

Another is to include mental health resources in the syllabus and pointing them out at the start of the semester. Then, reminding them of those resources, especially around stressful periods in the semester, like during midterms and finals. For students, I think it’s key to hear it come from faculty, to hear them say that mental health matters, that it affects academic performance, and that we want you to be successful here. 

Finally, consider when your assignments are typically due and the impact that they might have on your students’ sleeping and eating habits. If assignments are due at 9:00 a.m., students might be likely to pull an all-nighter. If it’s due at midnight they’re going to work through dinner.

There are exceptions, but the healthiest time for an assignment is 5:00 pm. That probably won’t work for institutions, like community colleges, that serve a lot of adult students who work full-time. Whatever the selected time is, faculty should tell students why something is due at that time and, again, send a message that we want students to eat and sleep because we see them as whole people and value their well-being.

In New York, Accelerating Developmental Education Reform

The City College of New York, one of the 25 institutions that are part of the CUNY System.

Across New York, both the City University of New York (CUNY) and the State University of New York (SUNY) have been overhauling developmental education, removing or minimizing standardized placement tests, and giving greater weight to students’ high school grades, a key predictor of success in college. The results were immediately apparent. Both CUNY and SUNY saw dramatic improvements in the numbers of students who placed into, and passed, credit-bearing courses.

The next steps are focused on implementing and scaling evidence-based practices to increase student retention, completion, and graduation. Faculty are at the center of many of these changes. As two of six Strong Start to Finish Scaling Sites, CUNY and SUNY are implementing a range of developmental education reform strategies, from expanding guided pathways to course redesigns that provide corequisite interventions in math and English. By Fall 2022 CUNY aims to phase out all traditional, standalone remedial courses.

Partner Spotlight: The City University of New York

When Felix Matos Rodríguez was named chancellor of the City University of New York in 2019, he had a clear vision. To improve student success, CUNY needed to improve the quality of instruction.

CUNY, the nation’s largest urban public university, serves as a national model for promoting and driving social and economic mobility for the 275,000 degree-seeking students who attend its 25 institutions. The Puerto Rican-born chancellor, the first member of a minority group to lead the university system, started at CUNY in 2000 as a history professor and scholar of Black and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies. He is a vocal cheerleader for faculty and their role in advancing CUNY’s historic mission: “We call ourselves the American Dream Machine.

But as Matos Rodríguez ascended CUNY’s ranks, he also recognized a greater need to grow a culture that prizes and recognizes instructional excellence. “One part that was missing was a commitment to better teaching.” He communicated his vision widely and celebrated CUNY’s unprecedented response to the COVID-19 pandemic, transitioning nearly 50,000 courses online and equipping more than 30,000 students with computers and hotspots. The pandemic, Matos Rodríguez wrote, underscored why effective teaching was more important than ever.

“How teachers teach, how students learn, and what methods and approaches have proven most effective at elevating student achievement and outcomes.” Improving instruction “is one of our key priorities at CUNY — a way to both boost student success and support the invaluable resource that is our faculty.”

‘Improving Pedagogy at Scale’

Driving the instructional vision is CUNY’s Innovative Teaching Academy, which has provided training to over 4,100 faculty since its inception in early 2020.

“We hope to improve pedagogy at scale across over 7,500 full-time faculty and over 12,000 part-time faculty,” said Annemarie Nicols-Grinenko, the University Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs, during a panel discussion at this year’s ACE Annual Meeting. Nicols-Grinenko is a member of CUNY’s Innovative Pedagogy Working Group, which is charged with leading the Innovative Teaching Academy’s offerings and culture-building activities.

‘Scaling Instructional Excellence’

During the 2019-2020 academic year, through a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, CUNY’s flagship university, the City College of New York, trained and certified 50 faculty in ACUE’s course in effective teaching practices. The experience helped nearly 100% of faculty refine their instructional practices and the successful launch was a driving factor in CUNY’s decision to deepen its investment in professional learning for faculty.

That spring, CUNY was one of four university systems selected to participate in the national Scaling Instructional Excellence for Student Success initiative through the National Association of System Heads (NASH) to train hundreds of faculty in ACUE’s courses (NASH, 2020). In addition, a second grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York provided funding to support 14 faculty cohorts across CUNY’s seven community colleges in the 2020-2021 academic year.

Joining NASH’s initiative helped launch CUNY’s Innovative Teaching Academy, says Nicols-Grinenko. “When we applied for the NASH opportunity, the Academy was just an idea. Receiving this award and being part of the NASH initiative, allowed us to start to make the Academy a reality.”

Much of the training provided by the Innovative Teaching Academy is aimed at best practices in teaching online, but the Academy has also offered opportunities for CUNY faculty to learn more about mindset-supportive practices, open pedagogy, participatory teaching methods in the arts and humanities and alternative forms of student assessment. CUNY has supported the Academy by reallocating internal resources and through partnerships with ACUE and Western Governor’s University, and funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Carroll and Milton Petrie Foundation, Strong Start to Finish/Education Commission of the States.

Faculty as ‘Our Most Important Asset’

To improve pedagogy at scale, CUNY’s academic leaders recognize that providing faculty with professional development opportunities is necessary but not sufficient. To take root and grow, teaching must be embraced by the faculty and leadership of CUNY’s institutions, and assessed and rewarded at the college level.

The CUNY Innovative Teaching Academy plans to deepen its efforts to celebrate faculty who invest in their instructional training, starting with a university-wide event to recognize credentialed faculty. It is also working with the Office of Academic Affairs and the leadership of the University Faculty Senate to develop a plan to explore ways of better recognizing excellence in teaching and the scholarship of teaching and learning in CUNY’s tenure and promotion processes.

“If we invest in our most important asset, which is our faculty, we’re going to get faculty that are more motivated, happier to do the work that they do on the teaching side, and much better outcomes for our students,” said Matos Rodríguez.

State University of New York

Faculty development is a driving catalyst for developmental education reform in the State University of New York, the largest comprehensive system of universities, colleges, and community colleges in the United States.

Through a grant from Strong Start to Finish, all 30 of SUNY’s community college and eight four-year colleges are implementing at least one developmental education reform.

Their strategies are to:

  • Accelerate and scale up SUNY’s Guided Pathways reforms
  • Scale Math Pathways and targeted corequisite interventions across the SUNY system
  • Expand corequisite English Accelerated Learning Program (ALP)

In-depth faculty training and professional development are major levers being used to realize these goals, according to Johanna Duncan-Poitier, the Senior Vice Chancellor for Community Colleges and the Education Pipeline for SUNY. Duncan-Poitier emphasized that there was a strong commitment to faculty development and engagement as part of the implementation. That includes over 60 workshops with over 3,000 attendees. “We are investing in the people who are investing in student success,” Duncan-Poitier said.