Talking About Mental Health in the Classroom

Estimates range between 20% to 80% of students in higher education will experience mental health concerns during their undergraduate years (1, 2). It’s a concern in my discipline (3), yet despite the widespread prevalence of mental health issues in graduate school (4) – meaning that faculty should be aware of the problem – it still seems taboo to talk about in the classroom. Personally, I’ve seen many students overwhelmed by anxiety or depression and in a few rare-but-not-rare-enough cases, serious enough that I’ve worried about self-harm and intervened with the help of mental health professionals.

Mental health awareness is not an issue that we can leave simply to one corner of campus such as the health center or the counselling center. While I don’t want to assume the role of mental health professional, as instructors, we are in the front lines, working day-to-day with our students, so we should model efforts of working on mental health with our students (5, 6).

Recently, I was in a course development workshop hosted at Dartmouth College where I’ll be teaching over the next year. At one point, the question of setting appropriate boundaries came up, and an Associate Dean commented that it’s the responsibility of students that they should clearly know that professors are not available at certain times. While I agree that boundaries are important, I’m wondering if there isn’t a larger piece that’s missing – students should be in on the conversation about boundaries and time. As instructors, we need to teach and model good mental health practices in the classroom. It’s not enough to expect students to “get it” – it needs to be explicitly talked about and shown. Unfortunately, I think the prevalence of poor mental health practices in the academy contribute to the taboo of talking about it in class.

Over the past several years, I’ve developed some techniques for discussing mental health issues in the classroom over the course of a term.

Begin with a simple check-in. Every week or every few weeks, I’ll begin a class with a check-in. Usually, I start with a simple question like “Who is feeling more stressed this week than two weeks ago?” In a hectic semester, it’s a chance for each student to pause and notice how they’re feeling. In the anonymity that a classroom provides, some students might raise their hands, and I ask for volunteers to talk about what is stressing them out this week.

Simply noticing. This is the first step, and then by sharing it in the classroom, it becomes a shared burden. Other students recognize their own anxiety in what the speaker expresses. Students often don’t realize that the anxieties that they have are common, and hearing it expressed begins to take the stigma off of these issues. The stigma is often another level of stress – why do I feel this way? – on top of the original stress.

I might ask a second question: “Who is feeling less stressed than two weeks ago?” Stress and anxiety are not permanent conditions – the average emotion last less than one minute. It’s important to know that it can get better. Ask them how it got better.

These check-ins are a simple, quick way to get students start to thinking about their mental health, and can be a gateway to larger discussions or actions when needed.

Talk about dealing with stress. This doesn’t replace the role of a mental health professional, but strategies for coping with stress are a useful classroom activity that students often need reminding on. A simple prompt is “What do you do to de-stress?” Students may offer useful activities like taking a walk or other forms of exercise, talking with friends, meditation, or yoga.

Inevitability, a student will offer an activity like drinking all night or partying hard! This is a chance to dive a little further into it – does it feel differently in the moment than it does later? Why are all of the synonyms for inebriation “wasted”, “smashed”, “bombed”, “plastered”, “stoned” — why not cupcaked or rosed? There are positive ways to deal with stress, and students will have many good examples they can bring up.

I had one student who said that every day, she ended with a cup of tea and reading a Calvin and Hobbes book. No matter what happened that day, she knew she would have that waiting for her. I love this! Find something that can help make the stress bearable.

Talk about dealing with anxiety. You can talk about anxiety by talking about how we talk to ourselves. In a given class, I ask students to notice over the next week how they talk to themselves. Notice, for example, how much of the time the way you talk to yourself is pleasant – “Dave, you did a good job today!” for example. Then notice how much of the time your voice is the “should/woulds” – “Dave, you really should be working on that term paper.” Then notice how much of the time your voice is negative — “Dave, you’ll never make it – you’re a fraud and everyone knows!”

How we talk to ourselves often informs how we talk to others. Noticing the amount of time the voice is kind vs. demanding vs. negative is important, and can begin a longer conversation about how to address anxiety. Often, a therapist or psychiatrist may be needed. One step you can model in the classroom is to tell the voice to act with kindness. If you tell yourself “Dave, you’ll never make it,” model a kind response – “Wait, Dave. You’ve succeeded before, and there’s no reason to think you can’t again.”

Anxiety can feel overwhelming and is often situation-dependent. If a student gets anxious before tests or presentations, talk about ways to lower the anxiety. Perhaps bring a teddy bear or favorite totem to a test, or think about ways to manage a presentation. If nothing else, the anxiety should start to recede when the test or presentation are over. Chronic cases of anxiety should be referred to a professional.

Talk about dealing with depression or other issues. This is where I reach my limits as an instructor. I can’t talk someone out of a depression – certainly not in a classroom setting – so more serious cases of mental health should be encouraged to seek appropriate treatment with professionals. The best we can do is destigmatize seeking treatment. I will talk, albeit reluctantly, about my own issues with mental health and tell them how powerful my experience with my therapist was. It really saved my life – and it gave me my life back.

As instructors, we are limited in what we can do, and we should never try to provide therapy. The best is to talk and listen when needed and encourage students to reach out to professionals on campus. If you think a student is a danger to themselves or others, seek the appropriate guidance on your campus immediately.

Start modeling mental health by taking care of yourself. Of course, if you’re a ball of stress, anxiety, or depression, it’s going to be difficult to help your students manage their stress and anxiety and other issues. The demands of “publish or perish” and 60-80 work-weeks don’t really lend themselves to proper self-care of faculty, and the tenuous nature of many positions create uncertainty that floods the academy with anxiety.

Be sure to do the basics – eat right, exercise, and get plenty of sleep. Beyond that, consider what you can do to balance your workload. Is there a meditation group near you? Does yoga at lunch fit into your schedule?

Talk to your colleagues about the issue – at least as much as is comfortable. I’ve suggested to my previous chair that we should offer a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course. (You can find a teacher near you here.) If it works for faculty, then it may be something to offer students in the future. Even if only the faculty interested participate, having some faculty feel less stressed may help them deal with those faculty that cause more stress.

By modeling good mental health, discussing it in the classroom, and destigmatizing seeking help, we can begin to change the culture on campus around mental health. As Frasier Crane said on his radio show, “Good afternoon, and good mental health!”

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