Make mental health more visible in your course
How are you, as teachers, addressing the current mental health crisis which is partly caused by the pandemic?
First, the crisis on college campuses is real, as documented by figures like New York Times, Washington Postand Brooking. Many students are simply not motivated or focused. Those who seek help often report feeling lonely and isolated, according to national data collected by the Penn State Center for Collegiate Mental Health.
As such, our role in this area is not to dig in and try to solve – or even necessarily understand – students’ complex situations; rather, it is simply to be there as a trusted option for students. This involves: 1) showing empathy; 2) help students find ways to fulfill their academic requirements in your course; and 3) refer them to the appropriate professionals (such as a counselor or the campus counseling center) if necessary.
Discussions with professors, as well as my own experiences, tell me that more often than not, students think that professors don’t care or that we are not priority options to contact. Collectively speaking, we’re just not used to being accessible.
If we want students to reach out to us, we need to make mental health and wellbeing more visible in our classroom. Visible, in this case, means that mental health is recognized as a priority. It is something that the students will “feel”, in the same way that they perceive the community of the class. It has to be cultivated.
Likewise, an environment that prioritizes mental health and well-being must be developed. The main thing is to tackle it multiple times and multiple ways throughout the semester. Here are five specific ideas you can implement this term:
1. Create an activity/assignment on mental health and well-being
It could be as simple as opening with an icebreaker activity, where students share their common struggles. You can do this in person, online synchronously, online asynchronously (for example, via a discussion forum), or even in a hybrid classroom.
For a virtual class I taught last fall, I spoke candidly about the challenges I faced as a father of newborn twins, including how long I had to finish the class early. because the two babies were hysterical – screaming within earshot of the students. It made me anxious every time I started a Zoom session.
While most of my students weren’t yet parents, they can all relate to similar distractions during a videoconference. Sharing these experiences can help students feel that they are not alone.
Apart from the icebreaker activities, I have also made mental health a real subject of study in my programs. Here is my recent four-part module with teachers-in-training:
- Opening: Teacher burnout – is it an epidemic?
- Group discussion: how to You Manage daily stress?
- Read: The Importance of Cultivating a Daily/Weekly Self-Care Routine
- Homework: Create a custom “self-care routine” infographic to share with the class
I was so impressed with my students’ self-care plans (see two examples below), which were created using a graphic design tool called Canva:
You can discuss this topic during the first week of school or near finals time. Either way, these multiple touchpoints (i.e. mini-lecture, reflections, readings, and infographic) can serve to remind students to take care of themselves and to reach out if necessary. Several students expressed at the end of the course how this assignment made them think more intentionally about their health.
2. Check in periodically with students
Sending students periodic emails is another way to keep the mental health issue front and center. I would follow up with the bottom 20% of performers (say, about four students in a class of 20) after a few weeks into the semester and write:
Hey [Name], I noticed that you missed some homework for this course. I just wanted to check in with you and make sure everything is okay.
Although learning the material is crucial, your well-being is even more important. If I can help in any way, I will make it a priority.
Just reply to this email.
This template is flexible enough to work for large classes as well (just without the customization). More importantly, you have documentation, especially if there are subsequent follow-up discussions with the student, to show patterns of progression (or lack thereof), should you need it later.
Ultimately, not every student received by email will respond, but initiating contact goes a long way. Most will likely point out the amount of work or responsibilities they juggle. Sometimes it takes multiple emails back and forth for students to open up. Remember that the goal is not to dig into their personal lives and solve their problems; it’s about gathering enough information to determine if you’re qualified to help. Anything related to their mental health should be directed to the appropriate staff on your campus.
Remember that the stigma associated with seeking professional help can also prevent students from taking action. Cropping can help, saying something like:
“I know it’s not easy to seek outside help. One way to think about it is this: most of us have no problem seeing a doctor when we are in physical pain. So why wouldn’t we do the same when we are experiencing mental pain? Our mind is just as important as our body.
3. Use external expertise
This suggestion is quite simple but easy to overlook. Is there someone, like a campus counselor, who can talk to your class about mental health?
One of my faculty colleagues leads a yoga/meditation class in her spare time. She offered to demonstrate de-stressing (breathing) techniques with my students. They can also create take-out lavender sachets, which was a fun and active break from class.
4. Conduct a survey
Surveys are useful at the start of the semester (to help you anticipate problems) or mid-term (to see how students are progressing). You can list questions such as:
- How do you feel in this class on a scale of 1 to 5?
- Is anything outside of school interfering with your best work in this class?
- How can I, as an instructor, best help you to do your best?
If you want to edit a Google Forms template, go to here. (You will be asked to make a copy, after which you can edit the questions. Once done, provide the link to your students.)
5. Lighten the workload
At the end of the last term, I asked students to complete a “How-Can-I-Improve-This-Course?” investigation. This is different from the course evaluations they normally do.
No surprise, lightening the workload was one of the main requests. Rather than cutting specific tasks (such as posting a reflection on the LMS or coming to class with a question or comment), I’ll likely cut a few topics from the schedule and distribute the rest. This will deepen student learning.
Technically, lightening the workload is not a “visible” method, unless you explicitly tell students that you are removing topics. Either way, reducing the number of topics you cover is generally good practice, educationally speaking. This will allow you to integrate more content related to mental health and deepen the learning of other topics.
While there are countless other ways to make mental health and wellness visible, these five ideas can get you started. The goal is to do more than one thing, and in some cases, to do some of those things (like checking in with students) multiple times. For the preoccupied student, the question “Who should I talk to?” becomes one less concern when mental health and wellbeing is visible in your course.
Norman Eng, EdD, is a lecturer in education at Brooklyn College, NY, and the founder of EDUCATIONxDESIGN, Inc., which provides professional development training for teachers through workshops, online courses, and books . Download your free quick start guide, “7 Proven Steps to Plan, Teach and Engage Your Students,” at NormanEng.org.
Anemone Hortocollis. 2021. “Another virus surge has colleges fearing a mental health crisis,“New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/22/us/covid-college-mental-health-suicide.html
Lumpkin, Lauren. 2021. “A mental health crisis was spreading across college campuses. The pandemic has made matters worse,” Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2021/03/30/college-students-mental-health-pandemic/
Becker, Marty. 2021. “Educators are key to protecting student mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Brooking. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2021/02/24/educators-are-key-in-protecting-student-mental-health-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/
Center for Collegial Mental Health. 2021. Part 1 of 5: The impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of college students. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Student Affairs. https://ccmh.psu.edu/index.php?option=com_dailyplanetblog&view=entry&year=2021&month=02&day=01&id=9:part-1-of-5-covid-19-s-impact-on-college-student- Mental Health
Link to Google Forms survey template: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/11d_cNy112VUIoWxPP5R1RPiRIB0K4qJ6B83IIPRSYO4/copy