Academic Advancement Network Leadership Fellow Project: Final Report Rob Roznowski
Since the 1990s, university and college counseling centers have been experiencing a shift in the needs of students seeking counseling services from developmental and informational needs to psychological problems.
In the 2014 National Survey of College Counseling Centers, respondents reported that 52 percent of their clients had severe psychological problems, an increase from 44 percent in 2013. A majority of respondents noted increases over the past 5 years of anxiety disorders, crises requiring immediate response, psychiatric medication issues and clinical depression. In a 2016 survey of students by the American College Health Association, 52.7 percent of students surveyed reported feeling that things were hopeless and 39.1 percent reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function during the past 12 months.
In his Psychology Today article, “Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges Today” (2018), Dr. Peter Gray notes how the well-documented uptick of students struggling with mental health also deeply affects faculty. He writes, “There is a sense of helplessness among faculty. Many faculty members expressed their frustration with the current situation.” And noted most importantly, “There were few ideas about what we could do as an institution to address this issue.”
While Michigan State University has begun to address the very real issue of a generation’s struggle with mental health with expanded counseling offices and in-person counselors for students; scant attention has been paid to the faculty who are dealing daily with these issues in the classroom. For as Gray notes, “Faculty members, individually and as a group, are conflicted about how much ‘handholding’ they should be doing.” Faculty have questions about maintaining rigor within the classroom despite the mental health epidemic. They are concerned about maintaining high expectations in relation to grading and the adverse effect that may have related to students struggling with anxiety or depression. The faculty are simply ill-equipped for their new expanded role as educator that must now include managing a classroom with students who are struggling with mental health issues.
The “helplessness” described in the Gray article surrounds the numerous questions from MSU faculty that may remain unanswered in the current structure. The questions include:
- How does mental health fit into the mandatory reporting structure at MSU?
- Which is the correct office to report a student in distress?
- How can a faculty member suggest a student seek counseling?
- How can faculty anticipate bourgeoning issues to assist students?
- What may faculty say to these students they suspect may be struggling?
- How can a faculty maintain high standards when students cannot meet them?
- Once faculty have reported or learned of a student’s struggle with mental illness, how do they handle interactions with the student who may or may not have sought assistance?
- How do faculty deal with the student they reported once the student has returned to the classroom?
These and numerous other questions surround faculty in the classroom today.
Resources are needed for faculty members who are overwhelmed by the onslaught of mental health issues they deal with daily.
Part of the research phase of this project included examining and comparing all Big Ten university resources to assist faculty in dealing with students in distress in the classroom. From those comparisons, I began looking for university mental health vanguards beyond the Big Ten to see what their counselors and pedagogical leadership offered to faculty related to this issue. In that comparison phase, it was clear that there was a major need for MSU to expand its commitment to educator education about this important topic as so many of our peers have done.
The project continued with new material collected and created from various interviews from experts across MSU including the College of Education, Psychology, Counseling and Psychiatric Services, Office of Institutional Equity, Behavioral Assessment Team, Prevention and Outreach and many more. This process began in earnest during fall semester 2018 and continued throughout the spring 2019. I conducted interviews with educators from across MSU who have dealt with issues related to student mental health in the classroom to gather their interpretation related to policy, best practices and advice. The project has spanned visits to over forty offices across campus and has resulted into deliverables.
The goal of the project became clearer as the research continued. The outcome would be to create a resource for faculty members overwhelmed by dealing with their students’ mental health issues by creating a website that culls all current MSU resources. The aim was to generate paths to on-campus resources and provide guidance for faculty related to pedagogical questions in anticipating student mental health cases in the classroom, navigating the post-reporting process, and suggestions for classroom or interpersonal interactions with students who have shared their mental health struggle.
To that end, a pilot website was created that compiled all current MSU resources that could assist with those working with students in distress. The final site can be found on the Counseling and Psychiatric Services website.
The next phase of building the site was creating new content. The Ombudsperson has agreed to include language about mental health on suggested syllabi language. The College of Education’s Educational Psychology department created a list of FAQs for the site that could easily assist educators. The Employee Assistance Program (EAP) has created a preventative training session for faculty that helps faculty identify early warnings for students or even fellow faculty in distress. This training will be made available to faculty and staff to assist with classroom management and other coping strategies related to student mental health and the faculty. Our first training will be on May and based on results will be available in the fall 2019 for new faculty.
The response to the EAP training has been overwhelming. Faculty, staff and graduate students signed up for the May 7, 2019 pilot of the program. The forty slots were filled within minutes of the announcement and the EAP reported that 40% of the people who received the notification for the training went to the RSVP site following the sign-up closing. On the RSVP page, responders were asked to share their reasons of interest in the survey and here are some of the reasons:
- I am appreciative of ongoing training opportunities to help struggling students; I’ve also noticed a rise in students in mental health crises this year.
- I care so much for my students and colleagues and want more knowledge and skills to better support their mental health needs and know where to send them for needed help/support.
- I teach a 1000-student lecture-based class, and serve as an academic advisor for an additional 240 students. Through these roles, I encounter many students who are facing personal or psychological challenges. I feel that I would definitely benefit from training and guidance on how best to assist students who are in distress. Thank you for offering this program!
- As an advisor, I work with students almost daily who struggle with these issues.
- I think this type of program is a great idea. It’s important to offer beneficial resources to those who may be experiencing distress in their lives. I would love the opportunity to be a part of this pilot and learn how I could become a mentor to those in need.
- Deal directly with students and have seen an upswing in distressed students
- I have had students in distress come to me in the past and I would like to be better prepared on how to help them in the future
- I teach high enrollment classes and every semester students come to me in distress. After each encounter, I wonder if I am handling it as well as possible.
- I work in the Student Billing Office in dealing with students, parents, and various other university departments. When dealing with bills, financial aid, and other account factors it is a very stressful situation both for the student and parent. I am hoping this class will be informative and better guide me in handling students when they deal with a difficult and stressful situation.
- Education about mental health & how to navigate emotional distress situations with students is important work. I anticipate this skillset could potentially be applied to situations with co-workers and in our personal lives as well.
- I work closely with students every day as an advisor. I think training like this should be available to every advisor on campus as we never know when we would come into contact with a distressed student.
- I have many students in MTH 101 that have anxiety and stress and I do not feel equipped to help them.
- Study Away programs have seen an increase in students with distress in their life.
- I run a supply stockroom where eventually all undergraduates taking a chemistry lab interact with myself and other employees at times these can be emotionally charged interactions and some staff have been perceived wrongly in their intent to help.
- I have about 900 first-year students every fall. It seems that anxiety is a major issue for many of them and sometimes gets in the way of class attendance and academic success. I wonder if there is anything I can do as a faculty member–besides referring them to Olin.
- In my advising sessions, I am noticing that more and more students are suffering from depression, anxiety, confusion, etc. I’m not a counselor but I want to be sure that I am responding effectively and appropriately.
- In working with students on a daily basis, this training would have been extremely helpful as many of the students I work with struggle with depression and anxiety.
It is apparent that this training is necessary. Following the training I will work with EAP to examine the post-evaluation surveys and create an action plan for future trainings.
Following the session, the responses collected were overwhelmingly positive:
- There was a lot of good information.
- Good information that relates to supporting students.
- Information was concrete enough to use in the future and addressed the real issues surrounding implementation
- This is a very important topic and the information presented was very helpful for understanding best practices for helping students in distress.
- I hire students for our department and I think it’s important to be able to recognize if there are any problems.
- Just having a conversation about these areas helps “be prepared” and to be ready to offer the right help.
- We were provided with specific examples and steps to take in different scenarios. I appreciated receiving specific information rather than vague information regarding mental health concerns and situations.
- It validated for me that I have been doing the rights things do I don’t need to feel guilty, and told me how to do better at connecting students to existing resources
- The scenarios were excellent in helping orient what to do or not to do, what to say. There was a TON of very useful information and the placing of the information in context was excellent.
- Provided me with specific details and resources for bettering supporting my students who are experiencing distress, seen or unseen.
- The trainer communicated information that all connected together so the session was easy to follow with practical applications and real-life examples.
- It was a good reminder of how to help someone who may be in a crisis – how to keep the conversation going, but not try to be the person’s therapist.
- Useful information about resources and specific suggestions on how to identify issues and to respond.
- Affirmed many of the strategies and practices we use.
- I think in some ways we know this, but hearing it from an expert made a big difference.
- I feel like there are so many reasons that this was helpful, but one thing that really stood out to me was how counterintuitive some of the ways to help students are (e.g., the “96% is great!” example). I really appreciate the level of detail in the workshop and I would love to have a part 2!
- The content and tools given were extremely informative and will be so helpful for those at MSU in order to better assist our students. I also think the techniques shared can be used with anyone.
INTERPRETATIONS / DISCUSSIONS
Upon personal reflection, I realized that my initial impetus for the project (not knowing where to turn following my dealings with a student in distress) which made me feel so isolated was understood universally across the university. Each person I met with realized the importance of such work and its necessity. Most were surprised that MSU did not have resources organized for easy access but all were eager to assist.
Other personal reflections included that this project revealed my tenacity and work ethic for better or worse. In my application for the AAN Fellows program, I mentioned that one of my strengths and weaknesses was my lack of patience. This project (and Dr. Jackson-Elmoore’s careful guidance) taught me that patience is necessary while also not losing the focus on the end result.
I also learned quite a bit about structure and collaboration on various levels. Collaboration on a university-wide project requires personal diligence and cultivated cooperation with others. Most meetings were merely a point of referral to another meeting but the lessons learned in each interview created a blueprint for future projects. The end game was finding a person who could make decisions and in doing so, I returned to the first few offices I began with. That circuitous route I now realize was necessary to gain a depth of knowledge and to create consensus. In each interaction leadership and management styles were revealed to me. And those numerous meetings allowed me to see the evolution in my own leadership style. Examining those interactions has greatly affected my leadership both currently and in the future. I find myself more patient, thorough and quiet. (That last one is a big step.)
Mental health is not my area of expertise but teaching is what unites all of us working at MSU. Our mission at MSU is to create the next generation of fearless trailblazers. And this generation needs our education to reach them in new ways based on their struggles with mental health. The importance of this project laid in our common goal of education.
The project will have a life beyond what I worked on. From past meetings, several offices are working together to create a centralized MSU mental health landing page for everyone from parents to students, to staff that will offer clearer pathways for anyone seeking assistance related to this pressing topic. CAPS has decided to migrate the material collected for the project to their resources page for faculty. The work will continue among others much more qualified than I to handle but the collaborative discussion was key to moving more quickly on the subject. The offices have offered to include me in their collaboration and I am excited to offer guidance from my faculty point of view.
The lessons learned related to communication and coordination on this project could serve as a template for future efforts that similarly cross offices, disciplines and educational boundaries. The questions that remain:
- Why wait so long to take action related to a recognized issue affecting student life?
- In such a large university how can offices work more efficiently and in a more coordinated manner?
- When the benefit of the student is at the fore, can separate offices ignore issues of territorial demarcations or funding?
- Can more efficiency come through targeted coordination?
- Could those serving meet more regularly to create action plans and not duplicate work?
I think the answers to these questions could serve as the starting point for any issue affecting the well-being and educational experience for students at any university. The answers could also serve as an educational model for removing the silos, redundancies and perceived territorial or historical disputes. When the student experience is at the core of the debate, the answers will reveal themselves.
The key to all future university-wide projects relies on consensus building, communication across offices, and collaborations that unite around a pedagogical impediment. These important elements can assuage the reluctance that some feel when asked to work together. While these are the lessons learned from my personal experience related to gathering information for faculty related to students in distress, the simplicity of consensus, communication and collaboration can translate across multiple genres.