A Conversation About Student Mental Health

A Mental Health Conversation with Dr. Angie Smith, featuring the Faculty Toolkit for Supporting Student Mental Health

By Maria Gallardo-Williams

Concerns associated with student mental health are evolving and emerging, as such, well-established processes for addressing them are not yet widely adopted.  To assist faculty in addressing classroom issues, the NC State Counseling Center has developed a faculty toolkit for supporting student mental health. This toolkit is designed to help faculty create a classroom environment that is supportive of student mental health and provide faculty with tips on how to identify and help a student who may be struggling with their mental health. 

Maria Gallardo-Williams: Welcome everybody to the Faculty Forum. Today we have a very special guest, Dr. Angie Smith, who is an associate teaching professor in the Counselor Education program. She is also program coordinator for the Counselor Education program and is a Fellow in the Office for Faculty Excellence. Welcome, Angie.

Angela Smith: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you having me today.

MGW: I have a question for you. Have you seen the Faculty Mental Health Toolkit? And, if you have, what are your impressions?

AS: Yes, I have seen it. It is a unified resource so you do not have to necessarily go to a variety of different places. We all have so much on our plates, so it is nice to have one site that you can actually go to for a variety of resources. It helps with managing all of the different resources that we have on campus. I have seen it, and I’ve had some time to peruse it. And thank you to anyone and all who have been part of the creation of that document, as well as all the different resources that are included in it. 

In terms of my impressions I really appreciate the way that it’s laid out on the website. There are a lot of different resources and examples that are provided for faculty to be able to to engage and even think about basic scenarios of how they may be able to engage with students.

For example, creating an inclusive environment is so important, regardless of what content area you’re teaching at the institution. And so there’s some really helpful resources around how you can create a welcoming, safe and inclusive environment for all who come into your classroom, whether it be virtual or on campus.

MGW: Thank you, Angie. And since this is in your area of expertise, let’s talk a little bit about:  How can we, as faculty, best support our students during this time?

AS: It’s a great question, I really appreciate that question so much. Mental health impacts everyone. Mental health matters. We all are experiencing so many different levels of stress. I tell my students oftentimes that everyone comes to them with a story, and there are so many things outside of our scope underneath the surface that we don’t see. So, even though a student may present in a certain way, or may look on the face of it to be, you know, looking like they have everything together, maybe they don’t have everything together. Just coming in the space, knowing that there’s a lot going on for students, and a lot of which we may not necessarily know all the details. But I say that with this in mind, regardless of how students are presenting, if we can join in that space with compassion and grace, a certain level of empathy toward the fact that students have gone through and continue to go through so much and truly we all have. By the way, we all have universally experienced so much in the past two and a half, three years. There’s a lot of systemic issues that we’ve contended with pre-Covid. But: as we think about how our students are showing up, we continue to think about ways to extend that grace and extend that compassion. Listen to students and be there as a potential support.

Please, don’t hear me saying that you need to be a counselor in that. That’s not what I’m saying, We have professionals on campus who are amazing that can help and support students from a mental health standpoint who can provide that service, but rather that we are that front line as faculty members. Oftentimes as faculty we develop rapport and relationships with our students, and they trust us. They want to share their lives with us, and sometimes we’re that front line where students may say I’m struggling, and so being there as a resource, and also knowing where to refer students to in the event that they come to you as a faculty and say, I don’t know what to do. I’m struggling, and I know that you’re caring and compassionate, and you are going to be there for me, because you always have been in different ways in the classroom.  And knowing those resources, I think that the faculty toolkit that we mentioned for mental supporting students around mental health can be a great resource as a starting point. So if you’re just not sure where to send students or how to support them, that would be a great way to at least start there and then figure out different resources on campus and even outside of campus for students to be able to engage in activities that may help them to to mediate some of the stresses that they’re experiencing right now.

MGW: Thank you, those are all very good reminders, and they are helpful habits that we can pick up. But faculty need help too. So, what can we do to take care of our own mental health? Because sometimes you can’t give to others. If your own well it’s depleted. So do you have any ideas for things we could do?

AS: Absolutely, and I love that you said that, that is so important. It’s hard to tap into a dry well, and a lot of us do not have those reserves right now, for a variety of reasons. And so faculty, I think, are not immune to all of the things that are happening. I think that we are experiencing such high levels of burnout, and also high levels of intensity with regard to the pace that we’re continuing to have to navigate among all the other stressors that we’re dealing with in our personal lives as well as our professional lives. And so I think first is acknowledging that, and recognizing that. Yes, we have a lot going on, and understanding that we don’t know how long some of these things are going to last with regard to dealing with multiple stressors simultaneously. Right now there’s an increase in the flu and, in certain things that are happening now that we’re heading into the winter season. So really just being mindful of taking the time to really take care of ourselves, and whatever way that looks like. And I mean that from a holistic perspective when we talk about wellness. My students always say that I am repeating myself over and over again about wellness, but it is important to consider the basics. For example, sleep is so important. Everyone needs sleeps and how much varies based on each person. Identifying for ourselves and figuring out what’s level of sleep is going to help you to get through to the next day is essential. Also, identifying what’s that point for you and number of hours you need to feel rested. Also, we are all so busy, especially this time of year, it’s essential that making sure that we’re eating and taking care of your body. Speaking of eating, I would also like to mention that, even for students with food insecurities, having the food pantry is another resource. These are things that we can do for ourselves, and we know ourselves oftentimes better than anyone else. Right? So if you check in with yourself, and think I don’t know, my reservoir is not at the place where it necessarily should be. What do I need to do? Maybe it’s pressing the pause button and I’m not saying to press it for months or you know, years or weeks. But even taking a short break, if you need it, and that doesn’t mean that you’re weak, it doesn’t mean that you have anything that is wrong with you. It could help and be a great reset to pace yourself and recognize and be aware that there’s so many things right now, and sometimes it’s important to step away, and that could be stepping away to do nothing which could be rejuvenating in itself.

It also could be doing something that you love that really fills you up, and that could be a variety of different things for faculty. I know, for your case, that you love plants, you love cooking, and just doing those things and activities that bring a smile to your face and light you up when you’re feeling depleted and even doing that for a small amount of time. For some, being outdoors, practicing mindfulness practices, or moving our bodies through walking, biking, swimming, etc. can be helpful. Finding something that we enjoy can help reduce stress and even bring us joy. We know, based on research, you don’t have to do these activities for hours, even taking five to ten minutes out of your day to rejuvenate and stop and pause to engage in those activities can really pay off in dividends, and in the long run. Also, reminding yourself of that and also understanding your mind and body connection. If you’re noticing that you’re having headaches a lot, or you’re noticing that you’re having digestive issues is important to be aware of. Paying attention to your body is essential, and sometimes our body will tell us before our mind. So really stay in tune with that, and recognize that it may be time for you to maybe slow down, take a moment. Because we can’t be here for our students if we are not in a space where we can be there for ourselves and our family. So keeping that in mind, I think, is really important. I know that’s easier said than done, So I’m not saying that that’s easy. You know many of us are juggling so many priorities with regard to family and children and parents, and taking care of pets and all sorts of responsibilities. So, I am not saying that lightly. But I think that if we don’t take a moment to recognize some of those stressors and even our triggers, that it can be detrimental in the long run. My hope is that faculty and each person in our community can give ourselves grace and extend to ourselves and all around us. Also, if we are struggling, identify and lean into our support system for additional care, comfort, and support. This may be by connecting with family, colleagues, peers, or trusted friends. Also, as faculty members, a resource mentioned in the toolkit for faculty is the employee assistance program that can be found on the website. 

I appreciate the faculty toolkit for supporting students and faculty. I really hope that mental health continues to be highlighted in a variety of different ways, because we all need support in varying ways. And so please know I’m always here for you, too.

MGW: Thank you!

AS: You’re welcome!

Counseling Center Self-Help Resource: https://counseling.dasa.ncsu.edu/resources/self-help-resources/