Professor’s job increasingly includes mental health component

Survey finds 80% of faculty dealt with a student issue in last 12 months

A SURVEY OF NEARLY 1,700 college and university professors across the country indicates faculty members are on the frontlines of a worsening student mental health crisis.

The survey, conducted by the Boston University School of Public Health, the Healthy Minds Network, and the Mary Christie Foundation, found that nearly 80 percent of higher education faculty report having dealt with student mental health issues over the past 12 months and nearly 90 percent believe student mental health has worsened since COVID-19.

The findings challenge an assumption in higher education that faculty members do not see the mental health and wellbeing of their students as “their job.” To the contrary, the data indicate faculty are highly engaged in student mental health, which should cause administrators to question how well-supported faculty are in that role. According to the survey, there is enormous opportunity for improvement.

Three-quarters of faculty surveyed said they are likely to reach out if a student is in distress but only half have a good idea of how to recognize a problem.  Faculty are even less confident recognizing signs of and having conversations about substance misuse. Most have not participated in gatekeeper training, which is designed to identify people with problems and steer them to help. But those who have had the training say it was helpful. In fact, nearly 70 percent of faculty are motivated to strengthen their role in supporting student mental health and over 60 percent believe it should be mandatory that all faculty receive basic training in how to respond to students experiencing mental or emotional distress.

In addition to gatekeeper training, faculty who participated in the study said they would like a list of available mental health resources, a checklist of warning signs of mental and emotional distress, guides for how to initiate conversations about mental health, and written mental health statements to include in their syllabi.

With limited counseling hours and high demand for services, colleges and universities are increasingly looking to all campus stakeholders, particularly faculty, to be “eyes and ears” on students in distress, as well as to promote mental health and wellbeing in their interactions with students.  But in doing so, institutions must provide more support for faculty if they are to continue to rely on their judgement.  The expectation is not for faculty to become clinicians but for them to work in partnership with counseling staff and student affairs professionals.

Sarah Ketchen Lipson, associate professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.

There are other dynamics at play here beyond simply keeping students safe.  Faculty play an enormous role in shaping student success.  Data show that having a personal connection with a faculty member equates to higher student satisfaction and sense of belonging.  Furthermore, not everything negatively affecting students is a mental health issue requiring an intervention by a licensed counselor.  Sometimes students need someone to talk to, or someone to ask how they are doing, and faculty can be enormously helpful in this regard.  But not all faculty have the confidence or the inclination to be a concerned listener.  Without encouragement or approval from leadership, both the president’s office and their department heads, faculty are left on their own, often second-guessing their actions. Instead, leaders should recognize and reward faculty for these efforts much as they do with publishing.

The survey also reminds us that faculty are human beings with their own struggles and competing priorities. One in five professors in the survey agree that supporting students in distress has negatively impacted their own mental health. About half of faculty reported having at least one symptom of depression. The report also found that large numbers of faculty of color find their campus climates to be unwelcoming to students of color.  This creates an added burden for these faculty members if they do not trust the institutions to whom they are referring their students.

Zoe Ragouzeos, executive director of counseling and wellness services at New York University.

Meet the Author

Sarah Ketchen Lipson

Assistant professor, Boston University School of Public Health
Meet the Author

Zoe Ragouzeos

Executive director of counseling and wellness services, New York University
How involved faculty ought to be in student mental health is an ongoing question. But as this survey shows, faculty are already involved to large degrees in their students’ mental health and wellbeing, accelerated perhaps by the pandemic.  Colleges and universities should see this as an opportunity to embrace faculty’s willingness to help and provide them the support and direction they’ve said they need.  Empowering this critical yet under-tapped resource will save lives.

Sarah Ketchen Lipson is an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health. She is also co-principal Investigator of the national Healthy Minds Study, an annual survey of undergraduate and graduate student mental health and related factors conducted by BU and the University of Michigan. Zoe Ragouzeos is executive director of counseling and wellness services at New York University and president of the Mary Christie Foundation, a Lexington-based national thought leadership organization focused on the mental health of college students.

The survey was conducted by email between January 25 and March 10 at 12 institutions of varying sizes and types across the country. A copy of the report can be found here.