Administration should support faculty and staff during mental health crises

Annika Schmidt, Joy Webb

[email protected] , [email protected] 

 In 2019, Congress passed the Higher Education Mental Health Act, which is meant to ensure that college students have access to mental health resources. 

     Although mental health for students is important, there is no such act that exists for faculty and staff at universities. Additionally, when a quick “mental health educators” scholarly search is made, there is not a single article in the results about supporting educators; it is all about the educator’s responsibility to students. 

     Due to current circumstances, it seems that institutions of higher education would benefit from providing more comprehensive mental health resources to faculty and staff, as well as students.         

     According to UCCS’ Mental Health Services’ website, their service is threefold: to assist UCCS students with their academic success when personal/psychological matters are complicating and interfering with the students’ efforts; to serve as a training site for graduate students in Clinical Psychology and Counseling fields and in accordance with UCCS tradition, create, implement and develop services that are open to various organizations in the community. 

     There is no mention of faculty and staff in the Mental Health Services mission statement. This begs the question: why not? 

     Currently, UCCS faculty and staff are able to access mental health services through insurance benefits provided by their position at the university. The UCCS Wellness Center mental health resources are primarily for students, not faculty and staff. 

     The Scribe contacted faculty and staff at UCCS to gain insight into what is expected of them, the strains they have faced during the pandemic, access to mental wellness and the support they currently receive from the university. The extent of feedback from faculty and staff was significant. 

Heightened Expectations 

     Anonymous responses from UCCS educators paint a picture of heightened pressure to serve their students during the pandemic. One member of faculty finds their work and dedication to their students to interfere with life and family at home. “I’m expected to be the rock and have the answers and the contingency plans for every possible scenario.  

     As the target keeps moving, I’m expected to deliver my best professionally and put aside my home life and fears and uncertainties. As an educator, my students often come before my own children’s learning and the guilt is real,” they shared. 

     “I feel as though I carry the weight of the world,” another educator shared. “My biggest concern professionally is helping students navigate the uncertainty of learning during Covid. It’s been so much more than the normal student struggles. Students are struggling in ways I can’t always help or control and I carry that burden.” 

     Most of the UCCS professors’ biggest concern is student’s mental health, which means their own mental health comes second. COVID-19 has created more problems than meets the eye for students, which has especially impacted their home lives.  

     “Students are at some of the lowest income brackets so most lost jobs, homes, or have additional responsibilities forcing them to re-prioritize everything in their lives. Sometimes, their coursework is not highest on the priority list and all have to adapt accordingly.” 

     Once COVID-19 hit and classes were moved to online, professors were expected to adapt in ways outside of their job description. “I feel our jobs have expanded to include things that are outside our expertise, responsibilities, and training,” one educator shared.  

     “For instance, we are now getting a lot of pressure to do ‘mental health checks’ on our students and reaching out to ensure student retention. These are on top of completely redesigning our classes for the new ‘remote’ learning and having major interruptions in our research activities. We are also expected to attend more meetings.” 

     Another professor described some of the roles that the university is expecting them to take on as, “technology master, video producer, content delivery, enthusiastic video actor, resource manager, juggler/multitasker master.” 

     When classes were in-person, technology was a helpful tool that professors could use to make classes easier; now technology is so heavily relied upon that professors are having to learn how to do things with it that they have never done, and then they are expected to teach the students how to utilize it as well; the expectations are endless and unrealistic. 

     “I have to teach freshmen how to interact properly with tech and software that isn’t their phone or an app on their phones,” one professor shared. “I spent a lot of time teaching students how to use online collaborative tools like OneDrive and shared documents, email, chat, navigating an LMS (Canvas). I needed to have a master plan, communicate the master plan to students, super organized course materials, constantly reminding students of learning objectives and motivations, and having a full semester of materials complete for all classes I’m teaching.” 

     Screen time has also been a major factor in mental health of UCCS faculty and staff. Some professors said they are spending up to 15 hours in front of a screen per day. One said screen time has been giving them headaches every day. “I feel physically ill at the thought of spending yet another hour, day, or week teaching to grey boxes. I miss my students.” 

   Another professor also expressed the difficulty with focusing when they spend this much time in front of the screen. “I have to find ways to keep myself focused. This interferes in how I interact with everything else in my life.”  

     The effects of screen time have been impacting professors negatively. One said, “I hate the computer now. Email is especially bad.” 

     Screen time has also affected the way professors and students communicate with each other. A lot of professors have struggled with online classes because students either do not have web cams or do not turn them on, which means that professors never actually ‘see’ their student’s faces.  

     One professor said, “I find the extra screen time exhausting. It is much more difficult to interact with colleagues and students because I have to work harder to understand and read social cues like body language, facial expression, etc. This is impossible when people do not engage their cameras. I often feel like I am talking into a void which furthers the feeling of isolation. Also, the extra screen time gives me headaches and the extra time sitting hurts my back and hips…I’m not even that old!” 

EducatorsAre you Coping? 

    When asked whether they are coping, the response is largely the same—and concerning. The message is clear that faculty and staff are struggling to cope.  

     “I’m not handling it well,” one anonymous educator said. “My colleagues are hurting. We are struggling to lean on each other and remain distanced.” 

     “I would say we’re barely keeping it together,” a second educator said. “We’re mentally and physically exhausted. We don’t get breaks or downtime. Due to the pandemic, my yoga studio is closed which is my usual go to. I also don’t have the option of just ‘going down the hall’ to commiserate with friends and colleagues.” 

     A third educator shared, “I don’t feel well. I’m not myself and the stress of my job has thrown most everything out of balance.” 

Resources and Mental Wellness Practices 

     The struggle for professors trying to maintain their mental health, while also worrying about their student’s mental health, has been one of the most challenging aspects of teaching virtually.    

     Some professors say they are staying afloat with therapy, anti-anxiety medication and time spent outdoors. Now that winter is here in Colorado, getting outside is not as easy with snow days and low temperatures, so professors are shut inside with no escape.  

     One professor said, “Lately, for self-care, I have been taking long morning walks with my dog, hiking, generally getting out into nature when the weather is good. This helps my mood a lot. I also like doing yoga, reading non-academic books every evening to shut down my mind (I like mysteries), and even watching TV, preferable comedies to take my mind off work. I don’t typically watch much TV, but I have found this mindless activity helpful.”  

     Unlike before COVID-19, mental wellness looks more like survival, and professors are doing anything and everything to make sure that they are OK and can provide their students with the best education possible. “I’ve tried to set boundaries, downloaded the Headspace App for meditation, continued to collaborate weekly with close colleagues.”  

     In the work-from-home environment, many educators are not able to separate work from life at home, because the two places are one in the same. “I feel like I’m always ‘on’ when I’m at home, and I feel I should be working.” 

Conversation Around Mental Health 

     Given the amount of faculty that have expressed their struggles and concerns, it seems as though the administration at UCCS would be showing more effort in providing resources for mental health or even just creating more conversation surrounding this issue. However, many professors said there is none when it comes to conversations about their mental health. One professor said, “There is no conversation. Educators by trade give and give and give. It seems natural to ask us to give some more during this time, but the jar is empty. Burnout is happening.” 

     A big concern seems to be the level of exhaustion that professors are experiencing after working tirelessly throughout this semester, and though professors have been adamant about checking up on student mental health, it seems as though no one is checking on their mental health. “I feel like we all know we’re hanging on by very thin threads and I feel at any moment we’ll just break down.” 

     “Unfortunately, there has been very little discussion around faculty mental health or even recognition that faculty need mental health support until very recently (the past couple weeks). Most all of the resources and discussion were around student mental health.” 

     The suicide rate in El Paso County is higher than the rate statewide. And the state of Colorado has the 9th highest suicide rate in the U.S. as of 2016, with a mortality rate of 21.9 in every 100,000 people. In Colorado, suicide was the 7th leading cause of death in 2017. 

     People employed in education statistically have the lowest rates of suicide, but that should not lessen or restrict their access to resources servicing mental health, especially now, when educators are facing new challenges and heightened expectations. 

     If you are a faculty or staff member, resources are available to you as well. Faculty and staff may use the Colorado State Employee Assistant Program and make an appointment online or by phone at (800) 821-8154. 

     The Colorado State Employee Assistant Program offers six confidential sessions at no cost. Family and couples counseling is also available. 

     For a brief period, the National Institute for Human Resilience and the Veterans Health and Trauma Clinic offered a free “Traumatic Loss and Grief Support Group” for all UCCS faculty and staff following the sudden passing of a faculty member. This offer began Nov. 18 and ended Dec. 16.   

     Students are given a disproportionate focus when it comes to mental health attention. Faculty and staff members deserve the same resources and equal attention when it comes to mental health. Below are three additional, more extensive and on-the-record interviews with faculty members at UCCS that shared their personal experiences this semester and their struggles with maintaining mental health. 

Barabara Headle (left), Susan Howell (middle), Kimbra Smith (right).
Photos courtesy of the UCCS website.

Barabara Headle: Senior Instructor, History Department  

What’s the mental strain as a teacher these days during COVID? 

In two decades of teaching, I have never experienced the mental strain as much as I have since March. I worry about students; I worry about my family; I worry about my colleagues and friends; I worry that I am not teaching at the high level I am accustomed to. 

Could you elaborate on what’s expected of you while being an educator in the midst of a pandemic? 

We are expected to be sympathetic to students’ needs while maintaining high standards of education. We are expected to adjust to teaching using unfamiliar online platforms and/or transferring in-person lectures into “exciting” online PowerPoints or recording them–lots of time and energy is spent on making those transitions for each class. We are expected to carry on, to also continue with all our various obligations outside of teaching. We have meetings to attend; we have course schedules to plan and syllabi to write and, in some cases, multiple syllabi for a single class to account for COVID changes; we have advertising of spring classes to contend with so that our classes are not canceled; we have student mentoring; we have service obligations; we have grading–lots of grading; we have emails–lots of emails to read and respond to; many professors must or want to continue with research, but time and COVID are looming obstacles; we have families to care for.  

How are you and the teachers around you managing the stress of being an educator in COVID? 

We manage our teaching in different ways, but mostly I try to use humor to lift me and my colleagues’ spirits. I also try to focus as much attention as I can bear to getting students through the semester, which is a delicate dance between being a cheerleader, a professor who must maintain standards of higher education, and a shoulder to cry on.  

What does mental wellness look like for you outside of COVID as an educator? 

I never seriously considered mental wellness outside of COVID. I thought we had adequate services, so there was no need to think about it. 

What does mental wellness look like for you IN COVID as an educator?  

Mental wellness inside of COVD…hmmm… To be honest, I know that we told there are resources and we told to use them, but who has time for that?  Thanks mostly to our deans, there are now grass roots support groups for faculty and staff, which is great. 

What are you doing for self-care or to help with your mental health? 

I do research, either for future classes or because I am interested in specific topics. I help my grandchildren with their schoolwork.   

What is the conversation/discourse around educator mental health? Is there one? Could you refer us to some resources? 

Until recently, there has not been much conversation about educator mental health other than there are resources, use them, and “keep doing the great job you are doing! We appreciate your hard work.”  See also response #5. 

What has UCCS been doing in order to help with faculty mental health or to support you during this time? 

My world, like everyone else’s, has become one of many “Flat Stanley” images or bubbles with initials and disconnected voices. I work three times harder than ever before to remain social.   

How many hours a day on average are you spending looking at a screen? 

Funny you should ask this question. Last semester, when we went remote, I spent 14 hours a day, seven days a week, on my laptop trying to learn Canvas and teaching remotely. I convinced myself that if I worked hard enough over the summer to prepare for this semester, I would reduce my screen time significantly. I was wrong. I average 8 to 12 hours a day in front of my laptop–teaching classes, going to meetings, reading and responding to emails, grading (which is a bear online–paper assignments are so much easier to grade!), writing and uploading lectures, doing research, and, occasionally, buying books online.  

Additional Feedback: Barbara Headle 

It seems that discussions about the mental wellness of faculty and staff remain largely limited to “there are resources, use them,” and “make sure you take time for yourself–take walks, connect with friends and family, and so on.” This limited discussion, sadly, is not very useful as it does not seriously encourage faculty and staff to reach out for help, nor does it assuage the feelings of guilt or weakness when one considers reaching for help. Perhaps there is the assumption that faculty and staff can handle the stress of navigating and managing all of their obligations and responsibilities (see my laundry list of what is expected of us in yesterday’s email) better than students can, and that we can somehow take the time to destress. The sad fact is that while we are “managing” our responsibilities, and we are sympathetic to students’ needs, the toll all of this takes on us is a heavy one, as evidenced by the recent loss of Michelle Neely.   

I can only speak for myself, of course, but it seems that until there is more serious discussion of what we are experiencing, a discussion in which we feel comfortable admitting that we, like our students, are struggling to get through a day let alone a semester, mental wellness inside of COVID, budget cuts, declining enrollments, sitting 8 to 12 hours a day in front of a computer screen lecturing, grading, attending meetings, caring for our families, and so on, seems, at times, an unattainable dream. We muddle through each day, we say, “I’m fine,” or “I’m good,” and we do our best not to complain too much to our chairs and deans, hoping that we will get through this, together. Realistically, however, we cannot get through this together if we are not seriously discussing what mental wellness means to each of us and how do we achieve it, together.     

Susan Howell: Lecturer, Anthropology Department  

What’s the mental strain as a teacher these days during COVID?  

Worry is the number one culprit. I worry about my friends and family. I worry about my students. I worry about my courses and getting everything done. I worry about finances with declining enrollment. I worry about politics and our future as Americans. I worry about teaching another semester during the pandemic. I worry at night most of all.    

Could you elaborate on what’s expected of you while being an educator in the midst of a pandemic?  

I teach synchronous classes. That means that I give the lectures live, I tape them, and I provide Power Point files to provide for the myriad of student needs and schedules. I answer about twice the student email of a normal semester and often begin and end the day with a dozen emails, most of which are late work. Keeping everything straight (Canvas, technology, assignments), providing opportunities to make up missed assignments, and trying to make the class a happy place, may not be expected, but I am determined not to let the students down during this difficult time.  

How are you and the teachers around you managing the stress of being an educator in COVID?  

I’m managing the stress by making daily goals. Once those are complete, I try to relax. I keep a schedule, a calendar, and make lots of lists. I make sure to get outside during the day for at least one long dog walk. For other teachers, I honestly don’t know. I haven’t had significant contact with other educators during COVID. I know there are childcare issues during synchronous class times. Other than that, it’s just me and my computer.  

What does mental wellness look like for you outside of COVID as an educator?  

My mental health is fine if I keep a positive attitude and a consistent schedule. I’m new to Colorado, so I was just beginning to find activities and make friends that are supportive and provide that mental health boost.    

What does mental wellness look like for you IN COVID as an educator?  

My mental health is like an upset apple cart. At times I feel positive, other times isolated and lonely, and my sleep routine is hit and miss. I’ve done lots of comfort food eating and try to remain hopeful… this is a temporary problem with a future solution. I work harder to keep a positive attitude during the day (at least).  

What are you doing for self-care or to help with your mental health?  

I walk my dog, see my local family on Sundays (when we aren’t quarantining), and eat a lot of comfort food. I take midday naps when time allows. I’ve added yoga stretches, hot tea, and the best chocolate that Amazon can deliver. My dog Stuart has also been an amazing comfort. A good snuggle goes a long way.    

What is the conversation/discourse around educator mental health? Is there one? Could you refer us to some resources?  

There might be, but mental health is one topic that I don’t easily share with others. I come from a background where it is well hidden among your peers.    

What has UCCS been doing in order to help with faculty mental health or to support you during this time?  

There are conversation groups, I believe, but (as an instructor) I haven’t used any of the support mechanisms.   

How do you think screen time affects you?  

Physically, by the end of the day my eyes are dry, and my lower back is in knots. ’ve been using a standing desk and attached large screen to deal with the hours spent staring at a computer screen.  

How many hours a day on average are you spending looking at a screen?  

I split with about 6 – 8 hours during the day and about 2 hours during the evening.    

Kimbra Smith: Associate Professor, Anthropology Department 

What’s the mental strain as a teacher these days during COVID? 

I think the hardest part is teaching without seeing student faces–very few people are still willing to have cameras on at this point in the semester. Part of what that means is that I can’t assess how well people are understanding what I am teaching, but I think right now an even more important part is that I can’t assess whether someone is in trouble, is having an anxiety attack or is depressed or sick or whatever, or if it’s just that they didn’t change out of their PJs on a given day. I try to check in with each student but it’s not always possible and student well-being is a moving target. 

Of course, in addition to all that, teaching remotely means always being on call at home–all the chores have to get done (because I’m surrounded by them if I don’t do them), children have to get help with homework and with their own stresses, pets still need attention, extended family still needs to be checked on, etc. Exhaustion is real. 

Could you elaborate on what’s expected of you while being an educator in the midst of a pandemic? 

The usual–teaching, committee work, research, family–but also feeling the need to check in on so many people all the time. Friends, colleagues, extended family, neighbors, and students who are stressed or sick or who don’t have access to the resources they need. And again, all the usual home duties fall to the person who is physically present in the home rather than being shared as they are when both of us work outside the home. And those chores are more visible when you’re sitting at home every day. And many of us are also the support system for several others, both near and far, so that is an added concern and stressor. And it’s so hard to relax enough to really sleep. 

How are you and the teachers around you managing the stress of being an educator in COVID? 

Joking? Plodding forward? I feel like we alternate between feeling confident in our chosen roles as educators and panicking that everyone around us is really not okay, or that we are failing our students, or our families, or both. 

What does mental wellness look like for you outside of COVID as an educator? 

Having time to relax, spending time outdoors, being able to plan research as well as travel to visit family. 

What does mental wellness look like for you IN COVID as an educator? 

Um. Not really sure. Just hanging in there and trying not to think about anything past the next few steps. 

What are you doing for self-care or to help with your mental health? 

Warm baths? I’m generally pretty low-maintenance; my stress tends to be from concern for others, not myself. 

What is the conversation/discourse around educator mental health? Is there one? Could you refer us to some resources? 

Honestly, I haven’t really had time to look into this. 

What has UCCS been doing in order to help with faculty mental health or to support you during this time? 

A faculty member recently died by suicide, and since then, there have been some attempts to reach out to faculty, but honestly it doesn’t feel like a genuine effort. 

How do you think screen time affects you? 

It makes me more tired, and it’s harder to concentrate on things when I’m not at a screen. 

How many hours a day on average are you spending looking at a screen?  
Twelve or so? 

Additional research and questions provided by Brandon Flannery, Taylor Burnfield and Cambrea Schrank