Changing Higher Ed Podcast 131 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Dr. Jana Mathews – Understanding and Supporting the Changing Role of Faculty in Student Mental Health
In this podcast, Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Dr. Jana Mathews examine some of the unique challenges that undergraduate students are facing post-pandemic and how to better understand and support the changing role of faculty in student mental health.
Dr. Jana Mathews has a better understanding of today’s undergraduates than most of her peers. After joining the faculty at Rollins College—at the time, included in Playboy’s list of party schools—she embarked on a unique strategy for recruiting students into her medieval literature program: not just advising a sorority, but being recruited and initiated into one along with her students.
Her undergraduate alma mater, Brigham Young, did not have Greek life, and graduate school at Duke kept her too busy to socialize much. At Rollins, she has spent the past seven years advising and mentoring several hundred fraternity and sorority members, which gave her a close look at student culture—and led to a book on the topic—while her service as president of the Faculty Senate provided an equally close look from the other side of the table.
It is common knowledge in higher education that since the pandemic, more and more students, faculty, and staff are turning toward mental health professionals for assistance. Indeed, many (if not most) universities and colleges have had to hire or contract mental health professionals to deal with “issues.” But what really doesn’t get publicized is the role that faculty are playing in the health and well-being of their students.
The Current State of Student Mental Health
In today’s post-pandemic University, faculty and administrators alike are dealing with students whose mental health issues are impacting their ability to be successful in college. This isn’t because students are less mature than previous generations were (although some are) this is because many of these students lost two years of important social interactions that would have helped them better prepare for living “on their own.”
The fact is that many seem ill-equipped emotionally and academically for the rigors of college life, and a fundamental factor behind this nationwide phenomenon is their difficult transition from a highly structured and supervised home life to the freedom of young adulthood.
“When students walk onto campus, I think we imagine them as being full-fledged adults. It is hard to remember that the difference between high school and college is just a summer.”
In a matter of three months or so, students are catapulted out of a world of intense parental supervision and lockstep scheduling of academics, sports, clubs, and social activities and into a new world where they are expected to thrive. Without this support and structure. This frequently results in an identity crisis, one that is compounded by the fact that people at this age are still going through puberty in many senses, with changing voices and bodies, and brains that are not fully developed. The challenge of governing one’s body and mind, along with the new freedom that college life brings, often results in decisions that might seem logical and reasonable at the time, but turn out to be poor.
Furthermore, these challenges are made more difficult by the seemingly impossible standards perpetuated by social media. Today’s teenagers have never known a world without Facebook and other ubiquitous platforms, and the result is two-fold: users are constantly and systematically made to feel inadequate, and every problem or issue is made public and accessible not just now but in perpetuity.
How many of us have gone through challenges in our life in college or wherever. But now think about that challenge and realize that for this generation, is broadcast to millions of people. What is your deepest darkest secret out there? No. But that’s what happens with social media. It takes bullying to a logarithmic level.
Today’s college students spend more time online with strangers, with artificial or manufactured images, than they do with flesh-and-blood people. That creates the danger of a warped perspective and makes having a good sense of self even more challenging than for past generations.
Another factor compounding the situation. This age cohort has grown up with constant access to mental health care. Thus, it’s normal not only to share private details of your life with strangers via social media but to discuss mental health issues with real-world authority figures that are in close proximity, such as faculty.
Ironically, this generation has unprecedented access to mental health resources as these issues have become destigmatized, even as they have more and greater access to things that make them far more anxious and depressed than previous generations.
Managing Stunted Social, Emotional, and Academic Growth
“I think of the past two years as a black hole, academically.”
One of the biggest challenges is that because of COVID, this generation of students is not at the same academic level as their predecessors. This is because this age cohort was hit with the double whammy of all the challenges of growing up with social media, followed by the COVID lockdowns.
Today’s freshmen spent about half of their high school years either online or in some sort of hybrid environment, and thus arrived at college with dramatic and profound academic deficiencies. In a recent article by the New York Times, this learning deficiency is real. From the Times:
“At a basic level, there is good evidence and a growing consensus that extended remote learning harmed students. Some state test results from 2021 help show the damage. In Ohio, researchers found that districts that stayed fully remote during the 2020-21 school year experienced declines up to three times greater than those of districts that mostly taught students in person.”
Students are fully aware of these deficiencies and are very stressed about them. They bring mental health challenges that come along with being emotionally stunted from being socially isolated for two years. This is utterly unprecedented in higher education and in the larger society, and leaders are struggling to cope and move forward.
The Role of Faculty as Untrained Mental Health Counselors
“The running joke is that faculty are unpaid and untrained mental health counselors who happen to teach and do research on the side.”
Faculty increasingly are put in the difficult position of being asked to engage with students and help them work through hard personal problems. An icebreaker question to a student who meets with a faculty member for office hours—“How’s it going?”—often prompts an honest and thorough answer that is far beyond the scope of the faculty-student interaction.
This further exacerbates the already blurred distinction between work life and home life in academia. Faculty members traditionally spend 40 percent of their time teaching, 40 percent conducting research, and 20 percent in service activities but this “guideline” was thrown out the window because of the lockdowns and remote or hybrid teaching and learning conducted during the pandemic. Throw on top of it faculty’s role as untrained mental health counselors, faculty no longer have a work-life balance.
Three Tips to Help Faculty Manage Their Changing Role
Faculty Tip #1: Don’t Make it Personal
“You’re not the students’ friend. You’re there to listen to them and refer them when they need it.”
Don’t confuse the appearance of familiarity with the real thing. While today’s students are conditioned to talk out their problems, faculty members who are not trained mental health counselors should not take on the role of single-handedly walking a student through a life-threatening issue.
Easier said than done. How many times have we had someone approach us with a problem or issue, and we take it on and make it our own? Even though it is not our problem, we still continue to mull it over hours after we learn about it.
Faculty must learn how to listen but not make students’ problems their own. A better approach is simply to listen passively and nod your head and otherwise express empathy and sympathy with students who come to you with their problems. And then, if feasible, help them process their emotions, and then provide them with options and help guide their decision making. Most of the time, students know what they should do and simply need confirmation and encouragement to move in that direction. If they don’t, then faculty should let them know how to contact people trained to work with them and encourage them to persist once they begin getting professional care.
Faculty Tip #2: Recognize Your Institution’s Responsibility
“Conversations with students can get deep and dark really, really quickly. The dilemma we face every day is, we are not prepared to hear this information, and we do not know what to do with this information.”
Mentoring students, whether formally or informally, is part of the job. Still, faculty members sometimes get mixed messages from their institutions regarding the nature of this commitment when they are told to tend to the holistic needs of the student while also being told to not be affected by difficult conversations. To resolve this conflict, faculty should reflect on why particular students chose to share their stories, but to also have predetermined personal and professional boundaries so that they can respond objectively by referring the student to the appropriate professionals on campus for further help.
Faculty Tip #3: Always Keep the Big Picture in Mind
“The biggest gift from being a faculty member is that we influence students’ lives in this formative stage of their development. We’re training this generation to be excellent citizens of the world.”
When alumni are asked what they remember most about their alma maters several years after graduating, they rarely mention a specific course or textbook. They remember one or more specific individuals who cared about them and expressed an interest in them. And it usually is a faculty member.
The same is true today. The most important work does not take place in the classroom but through informational interactions in the hallway, during office hours, or elsewhere. This is where true mentoring takes place.
Three Takeaways for University Presidents and Board Members
- First, find ways to structurally recognize the student-oriented work that faculty members do. This refers to more than official advising—it’s mentoring and should be acknowledged and incentivized as such.
- Second, if possible, incorporate this work into the tenure and promotion process.
- Third, provide an open and frequent expression of compassion and understanding for your faculty—small tokens of kindness, recognition, and appreciation. Just as corporations will have doughnuts for their employees, colleges and universities need something similar that acknowledges the significant time investment faculty make with students and in some way gives them back part of that time. These can be small and simple, such as gift cards for lunch in the cafeteria, but they are helpful and increase morale dramatically.
About the Host
Dr. Drumm McNaughton is a Higher Education Consultant, CEO of The Change Leader Consulting Firm, and an international leader in transformational change for Higher Education.
Links to Articles, Apps, or Websites Mentioned During the Interview
About Our Guest
Dr. Jana Mathews, professor of medieval literature at Rollins College, a four-year liberal arts college with about 2000 undergrad students located in Winter Park, FL.
Jana is the president of the Faculty Senate for her college, but in addition to her teaching and administrative duties, between 2011 and 2018 she served as a faculty advisor for two sorority and one fraternity chapters on Campus.
She used this experience in working closely with the student population to create her latest book, The Benefits of Friends: Inside the complicated world of today’s sororities and fraternities, which was published in September by the University of North Carolina Press.