Campus News

Support for student mental health

Faculty members share examples of how they are helping students cope with crisis.

Illustration of four people in a circle of chairs with blank word bubbles above their heads suggesting conversation.
(Illustration by Leighann Vinesett/UNC-Chapel Hill)

A few days after last semester’s daylong Mental Health Summit, The Well shared advice from Carolina faculty for helping students amidst a time of crisis. We are following up with advice for ongoing mental health support from a different group of faculty.

As Dana Riger, clinical assistant professor in the School of Education, pointed out in last November’s story, instructors without mental health training or education should not be expected to facilitate dialogues about mental health in the same way as those with clinical backgrounds. However, they can still express genuine care for their students and be flexible and understanding.

Check in with your students

Kristin Ondrak, a teaching assistant professor in the College of Arts & Sciences’ exercise and sport science department, said that while she teaches large lecture classes, she wants students to know that she cares about them individually. She does this by starting each class with a “check-in” poll.

“I vary the polls that I use. Some have a Likert scale to rate their energy level or motivation that day. Some are word clouds asking how they are feeling. And others allow for open-ended responses,” Ondrak said.

She often follows the poll with suggestions for where students can receive support on campus, such as CAPS and the Learning Center, or reminds them about office hours. On days when the polls show that many students are struggling, she incorporates more opportunities to interact during class or provides two-minute “brain breaks” during the lecture.

“I have found that by recognizing we’re all going through a challenging time, students have felt more comfortable in opening up about their personal struggles,” she said.

Share your story

Dave Navalinsky, associate professor in the College’s dramatic art department, said it is important to remember that students have their own stories and lives outside of the classroom — lives that he admittedly knows nothing about.

“I think providing the students with honest pieces of my own story helps us find common ground and better understand each other,” Navalinsky said. “It’s also about them understanding that they are trusted and that I know the issues they are dealing with are real.”

He also recommended that instructors be mindful of due dates and try not to overload projects right before breaks.

Discuss “class business”

Kenya Haugen, clinical assistant professor in the School of Medicine, starts every week by discussing what she calls “class business” — anything that students would like to talk about related to campus or world events that ties in with what they are learning. These 10-minute discussions cover a variety of topics and teach students ways to conduct rational conversations.

“Not all topics are controversial by any means, but we do take time to explore how we would respond to an event or action, and how we can discuss how the event or action makes them feel when they talk to friends and family,” Haugen said.

Haugen also employs weekly journaling in her classes, providing a prompt to which students respond. Examples of recent prompts include:

  • In dealing with our emotions, why is it important to recognize both our perspective and others’ perspectives when having difficult or uncomfortable conversations?
  • To what extent do you honor yourself and others in communication situations? Do you give equal attention to both your needs and those of others? If not, focus on balancing your efforts to confirm yourself and others in an interaction this week and discuss the outcome.
  • How would life change for you if we were a completely nonverbal society tomorrow? How would this change your outlook on life’s events?

“I also respond to each student’s answers as well, so that they know I am reading, listening and hearing them through their words,” she said.

Show that you value students

Patrick Harrison, teaching assistant professor in the College’s psychology and neuroscience department, said that traditional class formats, such as having infrequent, high-stakes exams, often disregard student mental health and can indirectly penalize students who are struggling.

“I am always taken aback when students facing significant mental health or interpersonal challenges apologize for turning in an assignment late or express shame for not doing well on an exam,” Harrison said. “They often say, ‘This isn’t me, and I feel like I let you down.’ I believe it is especially important to remind students that they are people, first and foremost. As such, their value as a person is not reflected by their course grade.”

One way to do this is by building in added flexibility, like rolling due dates and options to attend class virtually. While this can add more work to an instructor’s plate, Harrison said it is worth it for the ways it can help students.

Another way he shows students that they are valued is by checking in both formally and informally with students to gauge the mood of the class and by building in extra time to the course syllabus to address non-course-related issues as they arise.

“Empathy goes a long way in making students know they are seen and heard,” Harrison said. “Building a course community where all students feel safe and valued not only shows students that they are so much more than their course grade, but also creates a space where they can reach out for help when they need it.”