When Supporters Struggle
Mental health issues among faculty and staff
The chair of the department wasn’t herself. This was clear to her advisees, who noticed their professor becoming disengaged and disorganized, and inconsistent in following through with paperwork and information. They suspected it might have something to do with the campus tragedy: A student in one of the professor’s classes had died by suicide earlier in the year, and she was taking it hard.
“I wanted to tell her how sorry I was, but I didn’t want to make her more upset,” said a sophomore advisee. “So, I found other ways to get the information instead of bothering her.”
There is much concern these days about the mental health of college students, and with good reason. During the 2020–2021 school year, more than 60% of college students matched the criteria for at least one mental health problem, according to a study by the Healthy Minds Network (HMN), and meeting demands for treatment is a challenge for counseling centers.
Less discussed, however, is the mental health of the faculty and staff. As the adults who see the students regularly, they are uniquely positioned to see whether their students are thriving, or seem out of sorts, or even attending class consistently. Which is an added stressor in work upended by the pandemic, on a career path already paved with unusual professional strain.
“There’s an old saying, ‘A good teacher is like a candle—it consumes itself to light the way for others,’” said a sociology professor in Washington, D.C. “I don’t think whoever coined that phrase had this kind of ‘consuming’ in mind.”
These days, faculty members are consumed with whether the students are okay, why they aren’t showing up for class, and how to handle the deluge of requests for accommodations, extensions, and exceptions. Recent political, racial, and harassment tensions have brought not just campus unrest, but also inquiries, investigations, and lawsuits. Many professors’ own work and research went dead in the water with COVID. The sociology professor counted four colleagues who’d either retired early in the wake of COVID or left teaching for the private sector, citing better pay and a more sane work-life balance. “Most of the burnout I’m hearing about doesn’t even have much to do with teaching itself.”
Or as one English department head put it, “The job you’re responsible for today is not the same job you got hired for 20 years ago.”
Studying the teachers: Who’s supporting the supporters?
After its survey of student mental health, HMN partnered with the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) and the Mary Christie Institute (MCI) on a survey of faculty perspectives on the state of student mental and behavioral health. Findings published in 2022 show that about 80% of faculty members reported having had conversations in the past year with students about their mental health. And one in five reported that supporting students in emotional distress has taken a toll on their own mental health.
“Classroom environments are one of the only places that every student is actually present. So, the vast majority of faculty are in this role of contact in some capacity,” said Sarah Lipson, an associate professor at BUSPH and a principal investigator of the study. “It was really important to have data to say we know that faculty are already playing a role in supporting student mental health; we no longer need to guess as to whether or not that’s happening. And I think probably without data we would underestimate how common it is.”
It isn’t surprising that faculty members report feeling like their work goes well beyond typical job hours and boundaries; student expectations of faculty extend further than the classroom. According to a Student Voice survey by College Pulse with Inside Higher Ed, students are looking to their professors for more than course content. More than half sought introductions to people working in their fields of interest, while 45% wanted professors to hear them on personal matters and to consider making accommodations because of them; and 28% hoped for help navigating college life.
Navigating college life can cover a lot of ground for an unhappy student looking for a helping hand. Last fall, a professor at Texas Christian University received a disturbing email from a student saying thank you for everything the professor had done for him, but closing by saying he was going to jump off a parking garage. TCU had lost a student in a similar way a few years before, and kicked into emergency mode trying to locate the student and stake out all the possible garages. As it turns out, the student’s walking route toward the football stadium garage passed the counseling center where he’d just begun an on-campus IOP (Intensive Outpatient Program). He made a spontaneous decision to go into the counseling center instead, said Eric Wood, director of mental health counseling at TCU—a significant benefit to having an on-campus IOP. Still, the email and frantic galvanizing was a shot of adrenaline that carries the lasting weight of stress and responsibility—pressure felt by faculty and staff, and of course, counselors.
Greg Eells was the beloved director of Cornell University's counseling center for more than 15 years. In March of 2019, he left to take a similar position at the University of Pennsylvania. His marching orders there: to increase capacity; decrease the time between a first consultation and a first counseling appointment; better distinguish short-term care, long-term care, and other kinds of wellness care; and expand the availability of phone, video, texting and app-based technologies that can be accessed anywhere, at any time, to support students in crisis. Eells also taught both graduate and undergraduate students in courses on counseling and psychology. No small balancing act, but he was a known superstar. Eells had also served as chair of the Mental Health Section of the American College Health Association, and won the Association for University and College Counseling Center Director's Award for Excellence.
The September after his move, both campuses were shocked to learn that he’d jumped to his death from a building near his new home in Philadelphia. His suicide devastated colleagues, and sparked soul-searching about the pressures of being a campus therapist, a constant watchdog. It also opened up a thoughtful dialogue on expectations we hold of the people looked upon to always be the strongest in the room.
An editorial in The Daily Pennsylvanian expressed well the pressure on caregivers to have it all together, all the time.
“The capacity of helpers to give sound advice, to listen attentively, and to go out of their way to help others leads us to believe they must be healthy themselves. The qualities we attribute to the helpers in our lives ultimately feed into the assumption they are immune to the problems and emotions we all face,” the editorial wrote. “While it may be easy to assume that helpers are invincible, it's also dangerous. It's one of the reasons we don't think to check in with them and don't remind ourselves that they're human, too. People who give a lot of themselves to help others can experience pain, love, and hurt as we all do.”
COVID habits and harms
It's been well documented that COVID was a strange and challenging time for education. From the university professor’s standpoint, it was a two-headed beast: learning to host classes online, from your side of the unfamiliar platform, and trying to remain connected with the struggling people in the squares on the other side. Being a faculty member during COVID meant having students who may or may not show up for class, and not knowing why. It meant not knowing who was living on campus or off, with or without a decent support network (or wifi network). It meant all the complicated communications that come with masking, especially hard for students with hearing loss or for whom English isn’t a first language. And now, post-COVID, it means contending with lackluster student commitment, and not knowing how much of the ongoing absenteeism, missing skills, and requests for grade leniency should be excused with accommodations.
“One of the ancillary effects many of my colleagues talk about is that students don’t seem to believe in deadlines anymore, and it’s like the time online made it seem as though you don't really have to come to campus anymore,” said John Hess, a senior lecturer in the English department at UMass Boston. He lost his youngest brother early during the pandemic, and was very empathetic to COVID’s effects on students and their families. “The faculty really, really care a great deal. They worry about their students and are very committed to student success. And so, when students don't come to class, or when they don't get the work done on time, it's not just that it annoys us; it's that they’re cheating themselves and missing out.”
Professors were also a natural target for student frustration during the pandemic. After all, they were the single point of official school contact via squares on a computer.
“During the midst of COVID, you definitely saw a lot of high expectation of instant responses and a lot of demands, for lack of a better word, about how things should be,” said Eric Wood, director of TCU’s counseling center. “There was a lot of pressure for faculty and administration to know all the answers. Everyone was scrambling, and students would say, ‘You should know the answer.’ It's a global pandemic. But kids were expecting immediate support and help.”
And if professors weren’t able to provide answers or respond in a satisfying way, their ratings went down—ratings that are taken into consideration for performance reviews and tenure.
“Anonymous reviews can be brutal,” said David Kroll, professor of Pharmacology and director of Master's & Certificate Programs at University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences. Kroll, a sometime contributor to Forbes magazine, wrote a 2013 article “Top 10 reasons Why Being a University Professor is a Stressful Job.” Anonymous reviews—which influence everything from tenure, publication, and grant applications—were one of them, as was the business of securing funding for one’s research, which COVID has only exacerbated.
“Faculty are expected to bring in grant funding for their own research. Research flatlined during COVID. You have your research team, you have your lab, and all of a sudden, you can't do any of it. If another university is managing to do it, then you are at a competitive disadvantage,” he said. “And funding is an issue that has gotten worse since then because of the rise in costs. So, they also have a financial pressure that’s a barrier to the tenure process. We lost someone recently because they couldn’t get funding for their research. Being a faculty member in the sciences is like being a small business owner.”
Wellness in the sciences and beyond
The sciences have unique pressures, based on funding and research-related outcomes. This in part prompted eLife, a global nonprofit committed to improving the way research is reviewed and communicated, to undertake a 2020 report on mental health in academia. The report focused on those who support colleagues struggling with their mental health. Of 1,500 faculty members surveyed at varying roles and levels of seniority, two-thirds of respondents said they had supported two or more coworkers who were struggling. Of those who identified as being early-career research academics, 47% said they were struggling with their own mental health at the same time. Of more senior respondents, nearly 25% said they were struggling themselves.
"I am repeatedly frustrated by my (often male) colleagues' stated belief that 'there is no mental health problem' at our institution," wrote one female mid-career respondent in the survey. "They don't know about it because their trainees come to me, not to them, with their issues. I receive no institutional recognition for this role.”
In an essay that accompanied the report, an associate professor at the Brain Mind Institute at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Lausanne, Switzerland wrote with striking honesty about the stress and mental health challenges that contributed to two heart attacks. He was not yet 50 years old.
“As young scientists taking on a faculty position, we quickly transition from being a team member to a team leader; from never worrying about securing funding to being overwhelmed with grant deadlines; from managing a single project to planning and guiding the work and careers of several students and post-docs; from worrying about ourselves to being absorbed in worrying about everything except our wellness. The great majority of us have never developed a course or taught classes on our own, yet we are all expected to assume these responsibilities,” wrote Hilal A. Lashuel, associate professor and director of the Laboratory of Molecular and Chemical Biology of Neurodegeneration.
“The life of a professor is a constant balancing act, where we try to juggle personal and professional responsibilities under the pervasive stress of managing expectations in an often hypercompetitive culture. There is always a fear that we may drop the ball, a sense that if that were to happen, we would be alone and the only one to blame,” he said.
Climbing with no clear footing
Achieving tenure is, for most professors, the natural progression and Holy Grail. Tenure track positions are hard to secure; they don’t open up very often, and they represent a financial and professional security that’s hard to replicate in other industries. And yet, it’s an elusive and constantly moving target. This is why, COVID aside, it’s a career path paved with unusually high stress and unpredictability.
“The importance of tenure can’t be overstated. That sort of freedom is remarkable. Pre-tenure, your entire life is centered on getting tenure, in terms of your research, however that's defined. That is the central focus of your life. Everything counts, but you never know exactly what the bar is, even if it's explained to you. There are no real guarantees,” explained one music department chair at a highly selective university. “It’s ultimately a question of how you are viewed by other people in your field. What’s your personal reputation? And it really has very little to do with your teaching, per se. If you are an amazing researcher and a terrible teacher, you will still get tenure. If you're a mediocre researcher and a wonderful teacher, you will not get tenure.”
Or, as another professor put it, once you have tenure, you’re free to finally speak your mind.
But the shine on tenure is seeing some tarnish these days, with the nation’s political climate impacting freedom of speech in academia. Even back in 2013, Kroll included it on his Top 10 list for Forbes, and he said it’s even more true today.
“The political climate is attacking academic freedoms, minimizing the protections of tenure. Universities are finding ways of getting rid of people whose views they don’t agree with,” Kroll said. “I know faculty members who’ve decided they’d rather work in the private sector for that reason.”
If you are a faculty member who then gets asked to be a department head, you have an entirely new learning curve ahead—and you are largely on your own. Learning to become an administrator is not something professors are born knowing how to do, and there’s rarely instruction or mentoring.
“Becoming an administrator is an entirely different skill set in a career where you're not trained to do this,” explained the music department chair. “Suddenly, overnight, you’re a manager. The first couple of years I made mistakes, or just approaches that were not productive, so I've learned what does and what does not work. Truly on-the-job training. Some larger departments are able to have associate chairs and steps to start to train their faculty. But if you're a small department, you usually don't have that option.”
His learning curve included a lot of travel for fundraising, a lot of communication around the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements, and being the department’s point person on about 40 cases in litigation, going back through events of the past 15 years. “As luck would have it, for me, there were additional stressors that are particular to this moment in history, even before the pandemic. I was completely burned out, and I was overdue for a break,” he said. He ended up taking an emergency sabbatical. “A lot of hard aspects of teaching have nothing to do with teaching. And it wears you down.”
Many institutions continue to offer expanded and innovative mental health benefits and services to faculty and administration—though unlike students, in most cases, they need to travel beyond the campus to take advantage of them. It’s not as if a professor is likely to sit elbow-to-elbow with their students in the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) office, waiting to meet with a counselor who is their own colleague at the school. Some universities have changed their offerings to include an in-house Employee Assistance Program (EAP), or a personalized referral service to identify local counselors who have strength in a desired specialty.
But the most pressing request identified by the BUSPH survey is for training in being an effective supporter, as 73% of faculty say they would welcome additional professional development on the topic of student mental health. Responses make clear that faculty feel a responsibility to help students dealing with mental health concerns, which contradicts a long-held assumption that faculty do not see this as “their job.” Additionally, peer support and ambassador programs that involve training staff and faculty would help them recognize and respond to mental health crises in their colleagues.
But at the end of the day, it’s up to the individual to be willing to reach out for help.
“As faculty, we cannot take care of our students,” wrote Hilal A Lashuel of Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, “if we do not learn how to take care of ourselves.”