Christal E. Carmichael is a Professor of Psychology at North Carolina Central University
As many of us make the transition back to face-to-face instruction, there are many factors to consider as we explore new ways to engage and support our students in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the most important thing that we must consider is the impact it has had on students’ mental health.
Knowing this, I want to encourage—and challenge you—to look beyond the expectation of a well-behaved student. Instead, think through what actual behaviors and changes in learning can indicate an issue in a student’s overall health.
Understanding student behaviors, managing their perspectives and responses, recognizing symptoms and knowing when to step in, are paramount in facilitating an effective course and having a successful semester. In this article, I will discuss a few ways to create a culture of care in your classroom where both you and your students feel supported.
Campuses in Crisis
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), three-quarters of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 24. A 2019 survey by the American Council on Education (ACE) also found that 82 percent of public four-year institution presidents agreed or strongly agreed that the mental health of students was the most pressing issue on campus. In other words, the usual “college age” is generally a key time for mental health issues to develop, pandemic aside.
Mental health issues were on the rise for college students before COVID-19. But since its onset, students’ mental health has made a drastic downturn. From 2013 to 2021, colleges saw a 135% increase in depression and 110% increase in anxiety.
Needless to say, there is a dire need for us as educators to think outside the box and ensure our students can experience an environment conducive to their mental health in our classrooms.
Speak Up About Warning Signs
It’s important to identify warning signs of mental health struggles and offer support.
As an instructor, you may only notice warning signs of mental illness in your students sporadically. Or you might see them every day for weeks at a time. While these signs do not necessarily indicate a mental health diagnosis, they should prompt you to pay closer attention to the student if further action is needed.
Some behavioral warning signs can include:
- Inability to concentrate
- Avoiding conversation or eye contact
- Withdrawal from friends or usual activities
- Declining grades
- Sadness or irritability that persists over time
- Defiance of authority
- Repeated absences
- Talking about feelings of hopelessness
- Marked personality changes
If you notice these behaviors in a student, talk to them individually. They may be more likely to communicate more sensitive information privately than they would be in a group. Acknowledging their struggles as a whole person, not just as a student, is critical as well.
Establishing Your Classroom as a Safe Environment
Your classroom isn’t just walls and windows—it’s a place for students to learn and grow. Having a safe and supportive environment in the classroom is important for everyone.
Most students in your classroom are likely to experience some degree of mental distress. As an instructor, you play a critical role in students’ access to—and engagement with—support services on campus, as well as their overall academic success. Establish your classroom as a supportive environment by providing a forum where students can be heard, and understanding that different students have different experiences and react to stress and anxiety differently.
It’s also important to be aware of your own mental health. This way, you can appropriately manage your teaching responsibilities and set up space for yourself when needed.
Sharing the Importance of Mental Health
As educators, we’re responsible for more than academics. We also help students learn self-care and personal responsibility. Part of this education is teaching when and how to seek help for mental or emotional issues. But how do you teach the importance of mental health?
One way is to share your own experiences when they’re relevant. For example, you could tell your students if you struggled with public speaking as an undergraduate. Maybe you were afraid that if anyone saw how nervous you were, no one would take anything you said seriously! Then, when you tell them that their participation is important, they realize why: because we all benefit from hearing what everyone has to say.
By sharing your own experiences, you’re showing them not only that vulnerability is okay (and even necessary), but that they have something valuable to add to the discussion.
I’ll leave you with a few recommendations on how to manage your classroom while keeping mental health a priority:
- Know where and when to refer your students for professional help
- Stay in touch with advisors to convey concerns in a timely manner
- Start each semester with an icebreaker that demonstrates support and relatability
- Always check in with students at the start of each class
- Maintain a culture of care throughout the semester
- Focus on students’ strengths instead of weaknesses
- Make yourself available before class begins and after class ends
To learn more about prioritizing mental health in your classroom, check out the “Navigating Mental Health Issues on Campus” eBook.