Mental Health on College Campuses: Supporting Faculty and Staff

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How can we support faculty and staff mental health to benefit those individuals, as well as students and educational institutions?

Mental health concerns among college and university students1 have increased considerably since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to 2 recent college mental health surveys, nearly 75% of college students said the pandemic has worsened their mental health,2 and 30% of students report more challenges in accessing mental health care.3

Recent data suggest that the mental health of faculty and staff has also been impacted by the pandemic, with more than 50% of faculty respondents reporting a significant increase in emotional drain and work-related stress in 1 survey.4 So, in addition to supporting students, what can be done to better support faculty and staff? Although colleges and universities are institutions of higher learning that promote knowledge and scholarship, they are also among the largest employers in many communities—and, as large employers, they must address workplace mental health.

As is indicated by recent survey and claims data, the COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated many mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress, isolation, bereavement, substance use, suicidal thoughts, sleep difficulties, and economic challenges. Faculty and staff deal with these issues on multiple fronts: supporting students, supporting one another, and supporting their employers. For institutions of higher education, the optimal approach to wide-ranging health concerns should invoke a public health lens.

At the University of Michigan, such challenges have prompted multiple approaches from different university entities. In a spirit of sharing best practices, the University of Michigan Eisenberg Family Depression Center, its Workplace Mental Health Solutions program, and the university’s student well-being partners offer the following key interventions to support faculty and staff well-being. These interventions are based on the literature and recent experience with workplace mental health programs.5

Make Mental Health a Top Priority

Institutional leaders—presidents, chancellors, provosts, and deans—should articulate the importance of mental health and use their influence to support initiatives to improve mental health and reduce stress. As an example, in 2020, the University of Michigan’s provost and vice president for student life charged a 12-member committee of deans, faculty, staff, and students to review well-being needs and resources on campus. The committee shared several key recommendations and outlined actionable implementation steps.6

Convene Key Stakeholders

Stakeholders may include faculty, staff, students, public safety representatives, health services staff, and mental health clinicians that have a key role in the short- and long-term well-being of all members of the campus community. Many relevant university experts tend to operate in silos; formally bringing these essential partners together can encourage new connections and collaborations to enhance mental health across the enterprise.

Use Resource Mapping

Develop an online menu or roadmap of resources that simplifies and enables easy access to mental health care. One of the biggest barriers to service utilization7 is a simple lack of visibility and clarity about how to access help. Expansion of telehealth models has improved access of mental health services.

Train Faculty and Staff

Provide training to help faculty and staff recognize and respond to mental health-related concerns. Training should be convenient, without additional cost to the employee, and offered in virtual or online formats. The training should use interactive educational techniques involving role play with common case scenarios seen in campus settings (eg, a distressed student or a distraught colleague). Core principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) should be incorporated and support the training.

Develop Peer Support Programs

Ambassador and peer support programs involve training staff and faculty to help their peer groups recognize and respond to mental health crises.8 Peer supporters are often considered more accessible and immediately relevant to many individuals, reducing a key barrier to seeking help. Ongoing support must be provided to these ambassadors through continued coaching, to optimize the role of helping immediately versus referring to more traditional resources.

Implement Continued Training

As faculty and other instructors know all too well, teaching something once is not enough. Institutions of higher education should offer faculty and staff coaching on how to incorporate best practices in their teaching and coursework, and provide feedback on best practices, what is not going well, problems encountered, etc.9 Best practices usually include tips on helping students, such as having more flexible policies on deadlines, grading and adding/dropping courses.

Follow a Strategic Framework

Importantly, schools and colleges should consider developing or adopting a strategic framework to guide the creation of more mentally healthy campuses.10 For instance, the Okanagan Charter—an international charter that provides institutions with a common language, principles, and framework to become health-promoting campuses—provides a vital and widely acknowledged plan to promote and protect campus mental health.11

Final Thoughts

Promoting and preserving mental health on a college campus is everyone’s job. Fostering faculty and staff mental health provides direct benefits to those individuals, as well as to students and to educational institutions themselves. Adopting a public health lens on mental health in the university workplace can be helpful and broadly efficacious, and it also makes good business sense. New models of remote and hybrid working and other ways that current students will join the changing labor force must also be addressed.

Dr Riba is a professor in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry, and codirector of Workplace Mental Health Solutions at the University of Michigan Eisenberg Family Depression Center. Dr Malani is the chief health officer at the University of Michigan, and a professor in the University of Michigan Division of Infectious Diseases. Dr Ernst is associate vice president of Student Life for Health and Wellness at the University of Michigan, and executive director of University Health Service at the University of Michigan. Dr Parikh is a professor in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry, and codirector of Workplace Mental Health Solutions at the University of Michigan Eisenberg Family Depression Center.


The authors wish to thank Danielle S. Taubman, MPH, program evaluation specialist at the University of Michigan Eisenberg Family Depression Center, for her assistance.

References

1. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Mental Health, Substance Use and Wellbeing in Higher Education: Supporting the Whole Student. The National Academies Press; 2021.

2. Student Mental Health Survey (September 2020). Active Minds; 2020.

3. Eisenberg D, Lipson SK, Heinze J. The Healthy Minds Study: 2021 Winter/Spring Data Report. Health Minds Network; 2021.

4. Course Hero. Faculty wellness and careers. Course Hero. February 24, 2022. Accessed March 1, 2022.

5. Riba MB, Parikh SV, Greden FJ. Mental Health in the Workplace: Strategies and Tools to Optimize Outcomes. Springer; 2019.

6. Regents of the University of Michigan. Student Mental Health Innovative Approaches Review Committee Report. The University of Michigan; 2021.

7. Dunley P, Papadopoulos A. Why is it so hard to get help? barriers to help-seeking in postsecondary students struggling with mental health issues: a scoping review. Int J Ment Health Addiction. 2019;17(3):699-715.

8. Gidugu V, Rogers ES, Harrington S, et al. Individual peer support: a qualitative study of mechanisms of its effectivenessCommunity Ment Health J. 2015;51(4):445-452.

9. Gayed A, Milligan-Saville JS, Nicholas J, et al. Effectiveness of training workplace managers to understand and support the mental health needs of employees: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Occup Environ Med. 2018;75(6):462-470.

10. Petrie K, Joyce S, Tan L, et al. A framework to create more mentally healthy workplaces: a viewpointAust N Z J Psychiatry. 2018;52(1):15-23.

11. International Conference on Health Promoting Universities & Colleges. Okanagan Charter: An International Charter for Health Promoting Universities & Colleges. The University of British Columbia; 2015.