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.

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