Op-Ed: Faculty must address mental health

Sunday, November 27, 2016 - 6:51pm

An open letter to the faculty of the University of Michigan:

Over 40 percent of students at the University of Michigan reported having felt so depressed that it was difficult to function at least once during the school year. Additionally, approximately 11 percent said they seriously considered attempting suicide at least once in the last school year. There are now more mental health and well-being student organizations on campus than ever. Clearly, mental health awareness and resource availability are topics that resonate with many students at the University. It is for this reason that we, CAPS In Action, a new student organization within the University's Counseling and Psychological Services that “puts the CAPS initiatives in action," would like to inform you of some of the biggest mental health concerns that students face on this campus and what role you can play to combat these statistics.

The faculty at the University play one of the biggest roles in students’ lives. Mental health is shaped by a community, so it is important that students are able to turn to their professors and Graduate Student Intructors for support and understanding. The key to helping fellow students is accessibility and communication. Professors’ voices are important, and we will respect what you have to say. We know that you want your students to succeed, and we want to suggest ways to support our academics and health. School can be hard, and mental health often takes the back seat to final grades. In a highly competitive environment and with the pressures of multiple exams and papers bearing down over short periods of time, it becomes a challenge to balance studies with mental wellness. Without enough time to relax, some students develop a toxic mental health lifestyle.

Therefore, we seek campus resources. However, fear takes over as our issues remain unaddressed. The most common of these fears is that of authority. We are reluctant to open a dialogue with our professors about our mental health issues because campus is a professional environment and showing weakness is not a professional trait. When we work up the courage to seek advice and help from instructors, we are sometimes met with disbelief and requests for medical proof. Our mental illnesses and health are real, and CIA’s hope is to encourage faculty to not only become more aware of the prevalence of mental health issues on campus, but also to take part in addressing them. When professors offer support and understanding, students notice. CIA member Aaron Brown recounts such an instance: “My professor continually highlighted the importance of mental health issues, (and put) mental health ahead of grades and assignments. Her office hours were always open to students to discuss any problems they faced, especially in light of the campus climate after the election. It was comforting to know I had someone to talk to.” 

As an easy first step, we would like to encourage you to incorporate new mental health language in your syllabi, like that which has been proposed by Central Student Government. Incorporating this statement in your syllabi will demonstrate your support for students’ well-being.

Secondly, we would appreciate promoting an inviting environment in your courses. Actions such as friendly emails before and after stressful exam periods, asking how we are doing and letting us know that we can come to you with mental health concerns would go a long way. We ask that you emphasize the value of self-care, especially during times like the upcoming finals week. With that in mind, remind us that we are valued and perhaps recommend ways for staying relaxed. We would also appreciate you to continue your guidance a few weeks prior to final exam week on how best to prepare. These reminders are very helpful in keeping us studying long-term and not cramming last-minute all-nighters in.

Finally, we ask that you treat mental illness the same way you treat other illnesses. Though we as students are doing our best to fight the shame associated with mental health topics, the stigma can still, at times, be debilitating. Your leadership and central role in our lives can play a critical part in our fight to break down mental health barriers, and we look forward to the achievements we can make together at the University of Michigan.

Additional resources for faculty:

1.    Faculty and Staff Guide for Common Scenarios: https://caps.umich.edu/article/faculty-and-staff-guide-common-scenarios

2.    Helping a Student in Distress: https://caps.umich.edu/article/helping-student-distress

3.    Online Tools for Student Mental Health Resources: https://caps.umich.edu/mitalk

4.    More on the CSG Mental Health Syllabus Language: https://www.michigandaily.com/section/news/csg-assembly-advocates-inclusion-mental-health-resources-syllabi

Sincerely,

The Students of CAPS In Action