Teaching and Mental Health: Part I

Sometimes life can feel a little bit like this

Sometimes life can feel a little bit like this

As is so often the case, I feel like I need to start out with a disclaimer. I have absolutely no training in psychology, psychiatry, or social work. In fact, I have never even received official guidance of any sort from my various departments when it comes to handling students with mental health issues. Sure, I got the standard “we are not trained for this, so don’t try to take it on – send them to counseling services,” but that was it. The only substantial piece of advice that anyone ever did give me was off the record, and it was this: “Students tend to want to talk to women, and young women in particular… so make sure you have a box of tissues in your office.” This turned out to be very good advice, and I’ll come back to that in a minute.

Everyone is always saying that there seems to have been an increase in mental health issues among the undergraduate student body in the last 10 years or so. I’m not sure if this is true or not, and I’ve never actually seen any statistics. I am, however, always at least a little skeptical and here’s why. When I was doing my BA – from 2000 until 2004 – I already knew of several people going to counseling services, so clearly there were people seeking help 10 years ago too. At that point in time, the stigma surrounding therapy wasn’t as strong as it was for my parents’ generation, but it’s not like it was something you wanted to openly advertise you were doing either. Which is to say, I’m pretty sure that there were plenty other people around me who were going to counseling services and just didn’t want to admit it.

On the other hand, the years during which I did my undergrad also witnessed the infamous “double cohort.” For those of you who don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, Ontario used to have something called OAC, or Ontario Academic Credit year – this is just a fancy way of saying grade 13. In 2003, OAC was eliminated and so Ontario students graduating from both grade 12 and OAC had to compete for an only slightly increased number of seats in Ontario universities in 2004. My university, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, received an influx of students who were academically brilliant – and I mean really really good. But emotionally, many of these students were initially unsteady. Sure, they figured it out, and many have gone on to become incredibly successful young professionals. But everyone noticed the initial spike in demand at counseling services, and the line-up of students who were waiting to see their professors in tears after receiving a poor grade.  Many also went to get a pep talk from our department’s particularly wonderful administrative assistant.

As the economy has become bleaker, the same pressures that burdened the double-cohort seem to be dogging everyone. You have to be the best if you want to succeed – better than the best, in fact – we are all told. Everyone knows what youth unemployment stats look like, and we all know how much a house costs. The competition has gotten so fierce that undergrads now give and publish papers, albeit at undergraduate conferences and in undergraduate journals. A lot of them also do internships, both paid and unpaid, in an attempt to get a “leg up.” And so, as you can imagine, stress levels have increased, and yet the potential of a payoff for all of this remains uncertain. When combined with the dwindling funding bestowed upon public universities, and dramatically increased enrollment without a similarly supplemented faculty and staff, it is hardly surprising that counseling services at universities across North American have been run off their feet by a flood of desperate, anxious, depressed, and even sometimes suicidal youths.

University and college instructors get to see all of this, up close and personal. Whether or not we care (and most of us do, although unfortunately there are still some who prefer not to recognize the problem), we notice the students with severe behavior problems, those who spontaneously disappear, and those whose demeanor slowly changes over the course of the year. And that’s not to mention the ones who end up in your office and breakdown in tears. Some of these people have problems that are long-term and clinical. Others are adapting poorly to the stress of a highly independent learning environment. And others still are simply dealing with shit that no 20-something should have to deal with: they are the primary caregiver for a sick or elderly parent, have children of their own or have inherited care of younger siblings, or they have been the victim of an assault. These sorts of things cause entirely normal bouts of anxiety and depression that get in the way of academic productivity, and I hear about them all the time in my office.

I hear so much of this because I am young and female. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, age and gender matter in this regard. I’m not sure if this is because students mistakenly assume that these traits make me maternal, or if they think these things make me easier to relate to or something. But it is definitely a factor. My male colleagues (senior professors through young male TAs) have generally confessed that they too have noticed this phenomenon. Although some of my male friends and colleagues were presented with a few student crises at the start of their careers, the older ones all say that the number of students who come to them in tears has markedly declined. Almost none of them have a box of tissues in their office. So yeah, thank God somebody had the good sense to warn me about the age/gender factor when I was just starting out.

And yes, I have considered that perhaps the number of teary-eyed students in my office is the direct result of my evil assignments or tyrannical grading, but over the years I have had too many people come to see me – in various states of distress – about things that have had nothing to do with my class at all. So it can’t all be my fault. I give them a tissue and try to listen. I then send them to counseling services. Over the years, I have even developed a process. A student who comes in and starts crying gets a tissue, a piece of candy (I always have a pot of it on my desk), a sympathetic ear, and then they get referred to my colleagues who are more qualified in these matter than I. The candy is a little weird, I know, but I can’t help it. My mother’s larger-than life hospitality means that to this day I feel the need to feed people, particularly when they are upset.

The problem is, counseling services is full-up, and many of my students get there and are told they have to wait for weeks – or even months – before they will get to talk to someone. Many times, an office will have a triage counselor, but this is not suggested unless a student is noticeably in crisis (for understandable reasons). Unfortunately, people in crisis are often the least likely to push the matter, so many people who need immediate help aren’t referred. This is where I confess that I’ve actually told one student to make a scene in order to access this service. She came to my office in tears, and I offered her the usual tissue-bonbon-counseling services thing. She just looked at me and said “I’ve already been there, they won’t see me,” and then started crying again. So I went off the record and I told her to pitch a fit. This is hardly a systemic solution, but it worked in the moment, and the episode has haunted me ever since. What are we supposed to do if we aren’t trained to help these students, but there’s no one available in the department that is?

Taking all of this into account, here are just a few things that I think need to happen. Instructors need to receive better training on how to deal with the quantity of students we see who are in distress. I don’t mean coaching in how to counsel them – I realize that is a liability nightmare – but some sort of information session about the number of students we should or shouldn’t expect to hear from in the course of a semester, and where to send them (both on and off campus) would be good. A more formal warning that women will bear the brunt of this, and young women in particular, also needs to be issued. And we all, collectively, need to agitate for more funding to be allocated to counseling services and staff in general.

In the meantime, I’ve now passed on the advice that was given to me way back when. Get yourself a box of tissues, and maybe some chocolates, and learn how to listen. Sometimes that’s all that people want.

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