The Impact of the Student Mental Health Crisis on Faculty

The Impact of the Student Mental Health Crisis on Faculty

Amaura Kemmerer, LICSW 
Executive Vice President of Client Engagement 

Amidst stalled contract negotiations, the faculty at the University of Illinois Chicago went on strike in part to demand the expansion of campus mental health services—but not for themselves. They hoped to outsource care for their students, an overwhelming number of whom have been struggling emotionally and turning to their instructors for help. “Right now, UIC faculty are winging it… and I’m not trained on how I should be supporting these students. I didn’t get a degree in that,” UIC senior lecturer and union official Charitianne Williams told NPR Illinois. “I have a degree in English.”

The UIC strike captures a precarious, highly interconnected relationship between faculty and student wellness that extends far beyond a single campus. The pandemic subjected people everywhere to the isolation and uncertainty that bred widespread mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Like their students, professors confronted the emotional challenges of being torn from the social and academic communities that grounded them. Upon the return to in-person campus activities, many also began contending with the stress of supporting an increasing number of students in duress. Around the country, faculty are drained, as they balance the typical demands of their job, along with new, emotionally involved ones sprung from the pandemic. The fallout, The Chronicle has written, may be contributing to mass feelings of burnout, “quiet quitting” and actual quitting.

The proliferation of student mental health concerns has impacted faculty workloads and well-being in direct and indirect ways. Given their regular, in-person contact, professors and students often form relationships that are personal as well as professional. Students who view their professors as trustworthy figures may open up about emotional problems they’re facing outside the classroom. According to a 2021 survey of faculty from the Mary Christie Institute (MCI), almost 80% of the 1,685 respondents reported having “one-on-one phone, video, or email conversations with students in the past 12 months regarding student mental health and wellness.” Even if students don’t explicitly mention their issues, they may affect engagement levels or work quality. Debates over how educators can maintain rigor while reducing stress and ensuring flexibility have dominated recent conversations about academic success. Whether over chats during office hours or by adapting entire curricula, professors are dedicating increasing time and energy to meeting student mental health needs.

Yet educators do not need to feel burdened by the responsibility of caring for their students. The 2021 survey from MCI suggests that many educators are interested in offering this help to students, but they also want and need more training and institutional support to be able to do so confidently and effectively. A report from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University also suggests that engaging faculty in a program to promote a campus-wide culture of care leads to “observable benefits.” Insider Higher Ed highlights how a corporate chaplain at Amarillo College in Texas has successfully supported faculty and staff in the face of their own mental health challenges. 

Ensuring students have access to the mental health care they need has the potential to improve not only their well-being but that of their instructors. Colleges and universities that offer a variety of ways for students to access mental health and wellness support have a greater chance of reaching more students. Educating faculty about these resources and how to refer to them is critical.  Christie Campus Health offers a full continuum of care, including a 24/7/365 clinical phone line to support students, whether they need an immediate conversation with a counselor or are in a mental health crisis. Clinicians who staff the support line routinely offer consultation to faculty and staff who may be unsure how to navigate difficult conversations with students. Immediate clinical phone support is one important piece of an overall strategy in faculty and staff feeling motivated and prepared to support student mental health. Contact Christie Campus Health for more information about our services.  

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