Sometimes, faculty are the first people students turn to for help when their mental health is suffering. How can faculty and academic librarians help build a more compassionate campus and assist these students in accessing existing campus supports?

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed and emphasized that a necessary precursor to learning is mental health and wellbeing. Students who are in distress may seek out assistance and sometimes that may mean approaching faculty members with whom the student has regular contact. Responding to (and perhaps even noticing) a student who is floundering, struggling, or languishing (clinical terms taken from positive psychology to identify an individual’s state of wellbeing and mental illness) can be challenging and raises questions about whether it is the professoriate’s responsibility to respond to this distress and, if so, how they should respond.

Towards a culture of care

Universities, at their core, are learning communities where students, staff, and faculty come together to pursue common academic and research goals. That work is most effective when those involved are both physically and mentally healthy. Students who possess high levels of emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing are most likely flourishing and able to engage in the learning process with little distraction. However, those with low levels of emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing are likely to be floundering and potentially dealing with mental health challenges resulting in difficulties with studying, learning, and meeting academic responsibilities in a timely manner. That is not to say that students who seem well may not be dealing with mental health issues or that those floundering need special mental health supports.

Student mental health has become a growing concern over the last two decades. According to the Ontario University and College Health Association, there was a 433 per cent increase in accommodation requests from those claiming mental illness disabilities at Ontario postsecondary institutions between 2004 and 2014 and mental health problems for young adults were expected to have increased by 50 per cent between 2015 and 2020. Despite how alarming these statistics might seem, some researchers believe that student mental health and well-being are no worse than the broader population. Instead, the rise might be better explained by diminishing stigma, increased mental health literacy, and better help-seeking behaviour. Nevertheless, current data from Statistics Canada indicate that the pandemic has exacerbated postsecondary students’ mental health struggles.

Student mental health has become a growing concern over the last two decades.

Are universities responsible for their students’ mental health and wellbeing? Expectations are generally that it is the healthcare sector’s responsibility to meet the physical and mental health needs of postsecondary students. However, mental health and addictions facilities and the social services sector as a whole are at capacity in providing support to the broader population. This means that postsecondary institutions, and those who work for them, may have more of a role to play. This is likely an unsatisfactory answer to the question of whose responsibility it is to respond to student mental health issues. Instead of framing the postsecondary education sector as responsible for covering gaps in the already-beleaguered health care system, it might be better to adopt a different framework altogether.

Universities may want to consider how a learning community should create a culture of care.

Universities may want to consider how a learning community should not only pursue common academic and research goals but also create a culture of care. The care that I am describing here is not the professional caring labour that is provided by the mental health practitioners on campus. Rather, I am referring to the creation of a culture of care that fosters compassion for others and recognizes students who are in distress. A culture of care within our learning communities is a culture that recognizes that learning is at its best when the student learner is healthy and one that acknowledges we all have a responsibility to show compassion in our learning communities. Thus, faculty, staff, and administrators do have a role to play when responding to students with mental health concerns.

A culture of care within our learning communities recognizes that learning is at its best when the student learner is healthy.

Responding to students with mental health concerns1

Students who are struggling, floundering, or languishing in their studies may not automatically seek help, as they may not know about the mental health supports and services available on their campus. However, there are signs to help identify these students. There might be a rapid decline in the grades of a student who has long been academically successful. Some students may display disruptive behavior or outbursts in lectures, labs, studios, or seminars. A decrease in participation or intermittent attendance may indicate that a student is struggling.

It is important to understand that distress may be expressed in a number of different ways and that a faculty member’s role in a caring learning community does not require us to treat, solve, or intervene with those students—it’s best to leave that to mental health practitioners and student affairs staff on your campuses. Rather, our role as faculty members is to connect struggling students to supports, resources, and services at our universities.

Our role as faculty members is to connect struggling students to supports, resources, and services at our universities.

To support students that might be in need of mental health aids and services, it might be helpful to contact them outside of formal class time (e.g., via email) and invite them to have a conversation over phone, by video, or in person (following public health guidance in your region). If students accept your invitation, share what you have observed and ask questions that promote discussion. In other words, ask open-ended questions and stay away from inquiries that yield a “yes” or “no” response. Also, refrain from giving advice (leave that to the experts) and stay away from asking questions that start with “why,” as it may make students feel they are being interrogated instead of being supported. An example of how you might open up the conversation would be “I’ve noticed you are missing a lot of lectures and are often late. I wanted to check in with you. How are you doing?” The most important task when you check in with students is to listen and empathize with them. Listening and empathizing will help you with the next step.

The most important task when you check in with students is to listen and empathize with them.

If it seems that the student may be in need of additional help, provide them with information about the available resources and supports on campus. You may discover that they already have their own personal support network and your role might simply be to encourage them to access it. If that is not the case or you believe those students would still benefit from receiving more support, it would be helpful to familiarize yourself with what exists at your university beforehand. Talk to your chair or your dean and explore the programs and supports your university’s counselling service, medical centre, and accessibility centre have available to assist students in various levels of distress. Being familiar with these campus resources and supports before meeting with the student allows you to make a timely and appropriate referral. To make these referrals, you might try saying, “It took a lot of courage for you to tell me how you’re struggling. I know some people on campus who can help. Can I pass that information on to you?”

Later, you may find yourself worrying about the student or even frustrated that you do not know if they have accessed available supports. It may be tempting to try to find out about their progress or to follow up with them. Remember that support services may not be able to share what they know about the student, as they are likely obliged to provide the student with privacy and confidentiality. It is also important to keep in mind that a faculty member’s part in a culture of care on campus is only to connect students with the resources and supports—not to shepherd students through the process or solve their personal problems.

As scholars, sometimes we want to (over)see matters through to the end, and it may be difficult not knowing how our students’ affairs will resolve itself themselves. So, practice self-compassion and discuss any remaining concerns about the student with your dean, department chair, a trusted senior colleague, a member of your university’s counselling service, or staff in your workplace wellbeing services, while maintaining the student’s privacy. They should be able to provide further advice and guidance.

Students at risk of harm to themselves

Not all students in distress will present with suicidal ideas, thoughts, or plans. However, if a student does mention to you that they are thinking of ending their life immediately, it is imperative to remember that your role is to refer that student to your local hospital’s emergency room, crisis centre, or to call 911—do not try to intervene or perform a suicide risk assessment. If you are on campus when this occurs, coordinate and inform your university’s security and safety personnel of your actions in case paramedical staff require assistance navigating the campus. If the student is not imminently planning but actively thinking about ending their life, contact your university’s counselling and/or medical centres and convey to them that you would like to arrange access to a same-day, urgent care appointment for that student. Most university counselling and medical centres should have this type of service.

Finally, if you do find yourself in this stressful situation, it is very important, as previously mentioned, to practice self-compassion and to talk to others at your university about what you have experienced. Talking to others can help you gain perspective and rejuvenate your own compassion. After all, you may also be in need of care from your learning community.

Final thoughts

In a time when everyone’s mental wellbeing is challenged by the uncertainty of a public health crisis that seems unending, it has become more evident that we need to move towards a culture of care and compassion. Student mental health, in particular, would benefit from such a cultural shift.

It has become more evident that we need to move towards a culture of care and compassion.

We need to recognize that it is everyone’s responsibility to build this culture of care. Faculty members have a crucial role to play, as we spend more time with our students than most other staff at the university and are well-placed to help struggling, languishing, or floundering students to access the resources and supports available to them. We can also create learning environments that encourage students to build supportive, inclusive, and respectful relationships with each other. These simple efforts can go a long way in promoting a culture of care within our learning communities and addressing the feelings of isolation, stress, and hopelessness that typically underlie most of our students’ mental health concerns.

If you know students who can benefit from professional counselling over the phone, feel free to refer them to Good2talk (1-866-925-5454), which is a province-wide, confidential, free service for postsecondary students where they can receive support and local referral information on mental health, addictions, and wellbeing. This service is funded by the Ministry of Colleges and Universities.

Jesmen Mendoza is a registered psychologist and professional counsellor at X University’s (renaming in process) Centre for Student Development and Counselling where he provides therapy and counselling to students on a range of mental health and developmental concerns. In addition to these supports, Dr. Mendoza provides consultation to faculty and staff on tricky students issues and is currently serving as the Grievance Officer and Chair of the X Faculty Association’s Grievance Committee.

[1] This section is based on the “Notice, Engage, Refer, Debrief” program at X University (renaming in process). My fellow colleague and faculty association member, Dr. Diana Brecher from the Centre for Student Development and Counselling, originally developed this program which was then later elaborated upon by the University’s Student Wellbeing (division of Student Affairs) and Workplace Wellbeing Services (a Unit of Human Resources).