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.