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More than a Temperature Check: Understanding the Signs of Student Mental Health Issues

Psychology professor Mary McNaughton-Cassill offers research and insights into student stress, to help educators better recognize and respond.

Educator

Mary McNaughton-Cassill

Professor of Psychology, University of Texas, San Antonio

PhD in Clinical Psychology, MA and BA in Psychology

Last fall, a student came up to me after class to complain about a grade. When I asked her how she had studied for my class, she told me that her financial aid came in late so she only bought the books for her “important” classes. Mine wasn’t one of them. Like many faculty members, my first response was to take offense. I’m not unusual; college students and faculty members often face communication gaps due to our differing expectations, experiences, and goals. Left unaddressed, this gap can result in misunderstandings, conflict, and stress. Fortunately, after talking further to the student, I realized that she was struggling to balance work and school and had not intended to slight my class.

Specifically, one mistake faculty make is that we assume people behave the way they do because of internal or personality factors, and we underemphasize situational explanations—a common response known as the fundamental attribution error (Berry and Frederickson, 2015). We also apply our biases unequally. If we miss a deadline because we are sick, or fail to return student exams in a timely manner because we are writing a grant, we justify our own behavior by saying we were overworked and overcommitted. However, when our students fail to meet our expectations, we attribute their misstep to laziness. We see poor performance on a test as indicative of a lack of ability or effort. And complaints about our courses are signs of hostility or even entitlement.

Bad behavior can certainly be the result of internal factors. But when we make this assumption without trying to understand the entire picture, we do our students a disfavor. Instead, we need a new approach. Specifically, we need to give students the same leeway we give ourselves.

In fact, recognizing extenuating circumstances is more important than it has ever been. The students we teach are far more diverse than at any other time in history. Many are first-generation college students, others are returning to retrain after careers in the civilian or military sector, some are international students, and many are struggling with psychological challenges.

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They face stress from financial difficulties and time pressures. Approximately 70% of students are working, at least in part to try to keep up with the rising costs of education (Carnevale et al, 2015). Students have little time to study, let alone get involved in extracurricular activities. And they struggle to fill their most basic needs: A survey of 30,000 students across multiple colleges found that as many as 50% of students experience food insecurity, and up to a third are housing insecure, even after taking into account financial aid and employment (Broton and Goldrick-Rab, 2017).

Additionally, the volume of information students must master has increased exponentially in recent decades. An expanding body of research and scholarship, emergence of new specialty areas, the establishment of literally hundreds of new academic journals, and ease of access to information make it hard for professionals to stay abreast of their fields—never mind novice learners. An abundance of choice actually complicates decision-making (Schwartz, 2016). So it should not come as a surprise that many students feel overwhelmed when they must select a major, narrow their literature search, pick a thesis topic, or settle on a career goal. Many students also struggle to reconcile their expectations about college with their actual academic achievements and social interactions. And when they constantly compare themselves to the often-misleading information posted on social media, they increase their sense of inadequacy and fear of falling behind their peers.

When students also struggle with mental health, things get even more complicated. Many mental health issues, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and eating disorders, tend to emerge in young adulthood (Kessler et al, 2007). The stress of attending college likely drives rising rates of depression and anxiety on campuses (Active Minds, 2019). Further, when students move away from home, they often struggle to manage self-care and medications, particularly if they want to fit in with peers who are drinking, pulling all-nighters, or engaging in other risky behaviors that can exacerbate mental illness.

Of course, faculty also have their own personal and professional reasons to feel stressed—we live in the same rapidly changing world as our students. And most faculty members are not trained mental health professionals and don’t necessarily believe that our role should include addressing students’ personal and mental health (Jaschik, 2012).

We need to recognize that student behavior may have situational explanations, rather than stemming only from students’ personalities. And if we, as faculty, want to communicate more deeply and effectively with our students and help them succeed both as scholars and independent adults, we need to build skills that will help us recognize mental health issues when they arise.

Just as millions of people who have been trained to recognize the signs of cardiopulmonary distress know how to stabilize someone while waiting for help to arrive, we need to take a similar approach to identifying and managing our students’ mental health.

We must learn to recognize signs of mental distress in our students, know how to talk to them about what we observe, and be able to refer them to available campus resources. When we respond more effectively to their needs, we, ultimately, face fewer disruptive behaviors, spend less time worrying about classroom management, and create a better learning environment for everyone. As academics, we pride ourselves in our ability to see beyond the obvious. Refusing to make the fundamental attribution error in regard to our students should be as much a part of our professional lives as thinking critically about our fields of study.

Readings

Complete information for the texts referenced in this article are given here:

Active Minds. “About Mental Health: Statistics” (https://www.activeminds.org/about-mental-health/statistics/), 2019.

Berry, Z. and J. Frederickson. “Explanations and Implications of the Fundamental Attribution Error: A Review and Proposal” (http://jiss.org/documents/volume_5/issue_1/JISS%202015%205(1)%2044-57%20FAE.pdf). Journal of Integrated Social Sciences, vol. 5, no. 1, 2015, pp. 44–57.

Broton, K.M. and S. Goldrick-Rab. “Going Without: An Exploration of Food and Housing Insecurity Among Undergraduates” (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.3102/0013189X17741303?journalCode=edra). Educational Researcher, vol. 47, no. 2, 2017, pp. 121­–133.

Carnevale, A.P., N. Smith, M. Melton, E.W. Price. Learning While Earning: The New Normal (https://cew.georgetown.edu/cew-reports/workinglearners/). Center on Education and the Workforce, McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University, 2015.

Jaschik, Scott. “Teaching, Stress, Adjuncts” (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/10/24/new-survey-faculty-activities-and-attitudes). Inside HigherEd. October 24, 2012.

Kessler, R.C., G.P. Amminger, S. Aguilar-Gaxiola, J. Alonso, S. Lee, S, and T.B. Ustün. “Age of Onset of Mental Disorders: A Review of Recent Literature” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1925038/). Current Opinion in Psychiatry, vol. 20, no. 4, 2007, pp. 359–364.

Schwartz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2016 (revised ed.).

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