Biology professor Sue Wick likes to keep tabs on her students.

But she’s not just worried about who’s skipping class or daydreaming. She’s also looking for signs of distress.

Have her students showered and brushed their hair? Are they constantly late or absent? Do they seem exhausted?

After learning about the increased demand for mental health services at the University of Minnesota, Wick started to think about what she could do as a teacher.

She said she’s seen student stress levels and mental health-related issues become increasingly noticeable during her 31 years at the school. And as mental health becomes a larger topic at colleges nationwide, some faculty members like Wick say that being attentive to students’ stress and mental state is a necessary part of their job.

“We’re the ones who interact daily with students,” Wick said. “We’re the first contact.”

Wick is now part of a university group charged with pinpointing ways faculty members can better address problems with student mental health. The group, called the Joint Taskforce on Student Mental Health, tentatively plans to introduce a report and recommendations for faculty to the school’s University Senate in May.

Finding a balance

Instructors often have to balance being compassionate with keeping courses challenging and fair.

Neuroscience professor Steven McLoon tries to create a welcoming environment in his classroom. He often gets coffee with his students and does his best to keep his lectures engaging. But that doesn’t mean his classes are easy.

“I teach difficult courses that are stressful to students, and I worry about that,” he said. “But on the other hand, it’s stuff to learn and you have to do it. So I don’t try to water down the course to make it friendly.”

It’s important that faculty members find a way to be understanding while still offering rigorous coursework, Wick said.

“Faculty will push back if they think we’re being soft,” she said. “There is that balance. We can’t baby students.”

Instead, Wick said faculty can keep their classes flexible by offering different assignment options or allowing students to drop their lowest exam grade, both methods that reduce stress without making a course too easy.

But simply acknowledging the stress students face can make a faculty member seem more approachable, said Callie Livengood, a finance senior at the U who sits on the task force.

Livengood said she had an instructor who took a few minutes on the first day of class to remind students to take care of themselves and reach out if they’re struggling. That gesture, she said, helped set the tone for the rest of the course.

For the most part, the instructors she’s talked with about stress and mental health have been understanding.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a faculty member where I’ve opened up to them about where I was or how I was feeling and they just didn’t respond,” she said. “But at the same time, I do know of other students who don’t have that experience.”

Rob Proulx, an agronomy professor at the university’s Crookston campus, said he keeps up-to-date information on students’ grades online and has a detailed schedule of activities to ward off unnecessary stress or confusion.

Even though Crookston faculty have discussed strategies to help students, he said it’s still sometimes difficult knowing how to help a student in crisis.

“It’s hard for me to know exactly how to be present for those students,” he said.

Lauren Mitchell, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology who also serves on the mental health task force, said students sometimes don’t realize that faculty members have had similar experiences in dealing with stress and school.

While she said she’s glad to see more faculty taking an interest in student mental health, she said she’d like to see faculty take a firmer stance in pushing for more resources for students, because their input often carries a lot of weight in long-term planning.

“We’re not really getting out in front of [the issue],” she said.

“A little bit of practice”

A 2014 American freshman survey from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that the emotional health of incoming freshmen was at its lowest point in at least three decades. At the University of Minnesota, one in three students report having a mental illness diagnosis in their lifetime.

“If you are teaching students, you are teaching students that will … have challenges,” said Gary Christenson, the chief medical officer for Boynton Health, the U’s health service. The university offers a 90-minute training in the ways faculty or staff can assist students and identify signs of mental illness.

Christenson said simple changes, like moving deadlines from midnight to earlier in the evening so students can get more sleep, can rid courses of additional and unnecessary stress.

He said the ultimate goal is that faculty members are aware of mental health resources and can refer students when needed.

“We don’t want faculty to be therapists,” he said. “They’re part of the system of getting people to the right place.”

Chemistry professor Phil Buhlmann said that he often will push back an exam if he learns that it will fall on the same day as other classes. If a student e-mails him late at night, Buhlmann asks whether he or she is getting enough sleep.

Reaching out is almost an automatic response for Buhlmann, who is director of graduate studies in chemistry. But it took some work to get there.

“The first couple of times you do it, it’s harder. As a chemist, I’ve been trained in chemistry, I have not been trained for that really,” he said. “So it takes a little bit of practice.”

Buhlmann said he plans to keep mental health one of his top priorities as director, since teaching students to manage stress and mental health is a lifelong skill.

“Just talking about it and making it an official topic, I think that’s really important,” he said.

 

Haley Hansen is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.