Oh Captain, my Therapist!

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Note: a big thanks to Vimala Pasupathi for the constructive conversations that culminated in this post.

If you are a college-level educator, you have most likely experienced the following scenario: a once-promising student stops attending class or turning in her assignments. You know this student, her work ethic and temperament, and thus, her uncharacteristic behavior concerns you. You send the student several email inquiries — gentle nudges about upcoming assignments, reminders that her grade is free-falling, offers to chat during your office hours. Finally, the student shows up in your office looking wan and shaken. She tells you she’s been having trouble getting up in the morning. The thought of leaving her bed exhausts her. She has no energy. She can’t concentrate. She is missing all of her classes, not just yours. She is in danger of failing the entire semester and losing her financial aid and if she loses her financial aid, she tells you, she’ll have nowhere to live.  She looks at you, with tears in her eyes, grateful to finally have someone to talk to. It’s clear that this is the first time she’s articulated these spiraling fears to anyone out loud. “What should I do?” she asks you, and she means it. She wants you to tell her what she should do.

According to a 2012 survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 64% of students polled said they dropped out of college for a mental-health related reason. A 2013 poll conducted by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors found that the top mental health concern among college students was anxiety (41.6%), followed by depression (36.4 percent) and relationship problems (35.8 percent). These numbers, apparently, have been on the rise since the mid-1990s, and Psychology Today’s Gregg Henriques believes it has become a full-scale crisis: the College Student Mental Health Crisis (CSMHC). These claims are not news to those of us who work with college students every day. Every year more and more students miss classes, entire semesters and even drop out of school due to mental health issues. And those are just the students who openly discuss their mental health struggles. Many more remain silent and thus, undiagnosed and therefore, untreated.

These statistics are certainly troubling for professors who work with these students on a daily basis. But, perhaps, just as troubling are the increased responsibilities piled on to the already overburdened instructor,  a responsibility which no one is talking about. At the same time that universities are asking more and more of faculty in terms of assessment, recruitment and program development (on top of teaching, service and gasp! research), professors are now increasingly finding themselves in the position of playing armchair psychologist to their students. For those of us who work at universities catering to low-income, first-generation, or non-white college students, the odds that these students will have undiagnosed mental health struggles is even greater. Yet most faculty working today are not provided with the resources (in terms of training, time or, most importantly, financial compensation) to competently deal with this crisis in student mental health. And make no mistake: this has, for better or worse, become our responsibility. Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, believes:

Higher education institutions need to ensure not just that services are in place to support mental wellbeing, but that they proactively create a culture of openness where students feel able to talk about their mental health and are aware of the support that’s available.

Yes, today the college instructor frequently finds herself in the difficult position of having to simultaneously play the role of psychiatrist, family counselor, financial advisor, and life coach, all while having to make very real, very difficult decisions about the student’s academic future. The standard advice from the university is to send the student to their mental health services, but these campus centers often have very long waits and/or find themselves underfunded and understaffed. As Arielle Eiser reports:

College counseling centers are frequently forced to devise creative ways to manage their growing caseloads. For example, 76.6 percent of college counseling directors reported that they had to reduce the number of visits for non-crisis patients to cope with the increasing overall number of clients.

More often than not, recommending that the student head to a campus counseling center means simply passing the buck. In my personal experiences at least, that student will disappear from campus, becoming one of the 64% who leave college due to mental health issues.

As an academic advisor my job is to shepherd a group of students through their English major — they must meet with me each semester to discuss their schedule, their progress towards graduation, and their academic standing. Each semester I get a list of student names, along with their registration code for the next semester (a process which ensures that students must meet with me prior to registering for classes). It always breaks my heart when I look at that list of advisees and see the ones with no registration code next to their names. These are the students who have not re-enrolled for the semester. These are the students I have lost.

If only I had checked in on that student after our last tearful meeting. If only I taken the time to make sure she was still going to class, turning in her work, registering for her next semester. A single email, hastily written and sent, might have been the difference between staying in or dropping out. These are the kinds of emails my best self sends, the self I wish I were all the time, but which I am only when my deadlines are met, my children are healthy, and I’m caught up on Downton Abbey. These unmade choices torture me because they exist as possibilities, reminding me of everything I might have done and didn’t. My job and salary don’t depend on sending those emails. Therein lies the rub. When students fail and drop out of the system, who is to blame? It’s the student, sure, but it’s also those of us who are tasked with advising them. And it is this unpaid, unmarked labor that becomes “key” to student retention, a job which has, quite suddenly, been shuffled onto my already very full plate.

So much of the labor expected of faculty today, both on and off the tenure track, is unmarked and unpaid. As our salaries stagnate, our job descriptions inflate exponentially. Although middle management, the dreaded Associate Deans, has skyrocketed over the last few years, it’s ironic that faculty are being asked to take on more and more of the management burden. Our department chairs no longer assess our research, service and teaching contributions. Instead, we assess ourselves and turn in those documents in to our chair, who then quickly rifles through our summaries, offering us arbitrary numbers meant to represent our achievements. The university no longer assesses the value of our individual programs. Instead, we assess our programs — through Byzantine rubrics and committees and “objectives” — and then turn these documents in to our middle-management overlords for quick perusals.  The university is no longer tasked with recruiting new students to our programs. No, that is now my responsibility, despite the fact that I have no training in marketing or recruitment. I am expected to spend my work hours (the hours for which I pay for childcare) pitching English courses to community college students or thinking of sexier ways to describe my courses to undeclared majors. And then, if my classes don’t fill up? Yeah, that’s my fault. And I’m told I have to tach freshman composition.

Almost every week I receive a new email announcing the formation of yet another subcommittee on which I am supposed to volunteer to serve. I should volunteer, you see, because we all need to pitch in together and help! We’re a team! Almost daily I receive an email inviting me to attend another training workshop that will show me how to better assess my program or better manage the time that is increasingly being taken up with deleting emails inviting me to time management seminars. There is simply not enough time.

So how do I help my anxious, depressed, spiraling-out-of-control students when I don’t even know how to help myself with these problems? If I ignore the students’ cries for help, their mental health is compromised. If I help them, mine is compromised. This zero-sum game involves just me and the students. One of us is going to lose and right now, it’s both of us.

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8 thoughts on “Oh Captain, my Therapist!

    terinaw said:
    January 21, 2015 at 6:40 pm

    Reblogged this on Crave..

    Lisa said:
    January 22, 2015 at 9:04 am

    Amanda,
    While referring students to the ECU Counseling Center might feel like passing the buck, and probably won’t be all that useful in the short-term unless the student is in an emergency situation (you’re right that it takes weeks to get an appointment, except in the case of an emergency), the folks at REAL Crisis will take time with everyone who calls or walks in. As professors we can’t be expected to be the students’ counselors, but there is an excellent (free) resource right off campus. There is no bar for how bad things have to be to talk to them. They are trained to listen and help people come up with plans for getting through problems. (They’re also advocates for victims of sexual assault.)

    When I realized that many students don’t have people to talk to, and that they sure as hell don’t want to talk about depression with their friends, and that any professor who shows an inkling of concern is a natural starting point for a struggling student who might be far away from family and watchful, responsible adults, I put together contact information for the first resources available, one on-campus, one off-campus, for colleagues in my department, just in case it might be handy.

    ECU Counseling Center
    During working hours (M-F 8-5) call 328-6661. Be sure to tell them if it is an emergency (suicidal thoughts, etc.), if appropriate. Expect to wait a couple of weeks for non-emergency appointments.
    After hours call ECU police, 328-6787, and ask for the on-call counselor.

    REAL Crisis Intervention: 758-4357
    1011 Anderson Street (just across 10th from Joyner Library), a non-profit, free, confidential 24-hour call center with crisis counselors trained for suicide pre- and intervention and sexual assault advocacy. You can also walk in and speak to a counselor in person until about 9pm.

    Always take a person who says he/she is having suicidal thoughts seriously. It is often difficult for them to open up to friends and family because they don’t want to hurt or worry them, so if they reach out at all, it may be to someone they trust, has shown some concern for them, and to whom they are not particularly close. If someone should come to you, simply listen to them without freaking out or judging them and give them the resources listed above. Matter of factly let them know you care (but don’t try to guilt them.) Encourage them to seek help.

    Jason Mittell said:
    January 22, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    If I can offer an alternate perspective from a very different institution: in my 13 years teaching at Middlebury, I’ve encountered such a situation maybe twice. I don’t think it’s because my students are any less stressed, depressed, anxious, etc. (although their attitudes toward their mental health and resources may be somewhat different). It’s partly because female faculty are much more likely to be viewed as a counselor/pseudo-parent than men.

    But mostly, it’s because at Middlebury there are 5 Deans whose primary job is to be the go-to resource for 500 students each, whether it’s a health issue, a personal crisis, or just advice. If a student needs an extension, an incomplete, or an excused absence, it must go through their Dean. The Deans know these students well and are tracking their progress, and as a professor I can always call them to touch base about a student who is struggling – or refer a student to them. Sometimes we work together to solve a problem, but I am never expected to be a counselor – and am explicitly told not to serve in a role I am not trained to undertake.

    This is a hugely expensive model and thus would be hard to scale at a larger public university, but these are the “Ass Deans” who make my job much more manageable and help students succeed (or fail with grace).

    Amanda Ann Klein responded:
    January 22, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    Jason, I think you’ve hit on one (of the many) differences between a small liberal arts college like Middlebury and a big state university like ECU. I simply cannot imagine our deans–or even our department chairs!!!!–taking on anything remotely like that level of administrative work. That’s seriously unfathomable here. Our Ass Deans multiply like Gremlins here and I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what, exactly, they do. I assume they are doing administrative work, but yet, my admin duties have only increased as their presence on my campus has increased, so who knows.

    Your other point is also important: I do think female faculty tend to do way more emotional labor than male faculty. I find myself in some version of the situation described in my first paragraph several times every semester!

    I am always happy to help my students but this kind of labor really takes its toll. I hope folks start talking about this more.

    Lael Ewy said:
    January 22, 2015 at 3:42 pm

    As someone who has taught full time at the college level and who now works full time in the mental health field and teaches part time, a lot of this really strikes home.

    I’m also someone who went through those struggles as an undergrad, so as a teacher, I’ve been able, over the years, to bring some of that perspective to these interactions–and these interactions *are* becoming more frequent.

    That has led me into a job helping promulgate peer support models in the community, and let me tell you, a tough nut to crack as far as peer support goes is the university at which I work. Counseling centers tend to be old school and resist the very models that would take the burden off of the counseling center employees and distribute support to trained students and recovery-based community resources.

    Often, what a struggling student does not need is a prescription for a psych med or the addition of group therapy to an already busy schedule. Often what she needs is a person who will listen, not judge, and not rush into “intervention” mode. When you already feel like you’re screwing up, nothing can make you feel even worse than an overreaction and escalation on the part of the authorities you trust.

    Tools for problem-solving, self-soothing, facing fears, all can help people move through and prevent personal crisis, and they can give young people the skills they need to deal with stressors beyond college. There are lots of different ways to approach this, and I’d even be happy to provide some resources for anyone who is interested.

    Because, you know, it’s my job and stuff.

    Derek Kompare (@d_kompare) said:
    January 26, 2015 at 2:27 pm

    I encounter variations of this scenario about once a year, and even though our schools are somewhat different (mine is private and mostly upper middle-class to upper-class), the management burden you described certainly rings a bell. That’s exactly what we’ve been going through here, at least in the 11 years I’ve been at SMU.

    Depending on my mood (which, as you say, is highly dependent on the bazillion other things I have to do), I try to talk these students down as much as I can, and give them enough space to talk or cry, as need be. I then try to get them to talk about what other people they have to talk to, and how much they can use them. If it’s academic stress, I’m more comfortable. If it’s personal, I get out of my depth quickly. I had an instance last semester that was not only personal, it was international (literally; this student was caught up in some crazy but devastating internet trolling drama between students here and back in Seoul, that I could only somewhat understand). And sadly, sometimes these moments get to the point where all I can think of eventually is, “I’ve got to get back to grading,” or “I’m hungry,” or, worst, “please get out of my office!”

    I do wind up recommending the Dean of Student Life, which is a bit similar to what Jason described at Middlebury, but still a bureaucracy they’d have to navigate. That said, they’ve been pretty on top of things for the most part, and the rare tragedies that we do encounter (e.g., the suicide of one of our majors three years ago) were after we’d already done a lot to help out.

    As with so much of this job, I wish I could do more. But almost all of the time, I really can’t, for all sorts of reasons.

    manjunathaswamyhiremata said:
    January 31, 2015 at 12:12 am

    Reblogged this on Manjnatha Swamy Hiremata.

    Dear Student – Jesse Stommel said:
    December 16, 2015 at 9:19 am

    […] the conversation about the state of education. Teachers have anxieties. Teaching is one of the most emotionally difficult jobs I have done and can imagine doing. Of course, we need to vent. But it is not productive for us […]

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