Do you remember those scenes in movies where a student was reduced to a quivering mess after being humiliated by a harsh professor? Often the student left a trail of paper as he or she ran crying out of the lecture hall. We laughed at those Hollywood moments but some of us also cringed inwardly knowing we had been there and done that.
Fortunately in real life, more and more educational institutions in Canada are now actively protecting and promoting good mental health for students. This includes awareness campaigns about mental health and access to counsellors who can help. Often, the best approach is to educate those who interact with students on a daily basis. Conversations we’ve had with educators have told us that they are seeing it as part of their job to identify when a student may be struggling.
Dr. Michael Teed an associate professor at Bishop’s University, and Jan Wong, a professor of journalism at St. Thomas University, both said that they talk about stress and mental health issues with their students at the beginning of the school year. Teed said, "If I see students who appear to be struggling with mental health issues like anxiety or depression, I typically reach out to them and ask them if they are ok. In some cases, if they need help or are struggling, I make sure they are aware of the counsellor's office on campus. In the past, I have even walked a few students over to help them set up appointments."
Wong draws on her personal experience of depression to make sure any student who is struggling knows they’re not alone. "I start the conversation with students so they know the door is always open if they need help," she said.
Even with these advancements, some education institutions have not been as progressive when it comes to protecting the mental health of staff and faculty. Groups like the Canadian University and College Community of Practice for Workplace Wellness, who bring together wellness professionals from across the country to share ideas and develop resources, are helping to change this.
Tracey Hawthorn, Work Re-Integration, Accommodation and Wellbeing Coordinator at the University of British Columbia (UBC) said, "These are incredible opportunities for those of us who are addressing these issues in our workplaces to get together to share best practice and learn through a network of support."
Hawthorn said that one challenge the Community of Practice is looking at is stigma, which continues to be an issue for students, faculty and staff. "Professors in the early stages of their careers seem to be particularly hesitant to talk about their own mental health issues," she said. "Possibly this is due to a fear of losing out on the opportunity for tenure."
The group also recognizes that the best managers have the emotional intelligence to deal with mental health issues among employees. She said, "Some managers, however, still have a hard time recognizing and responding to mental health issues, including their own." At UBC for example, surveys have shown that on average male faculty between the ages of 40-60 are less inclined to seek help for mental health problems and will continue to struggle on their own. Senior management also reported that they are less likely to engage in self-care for their personal mental health and less likely to discuss problems. She said she hopes that these kinds of issues will become less prevalent in coming generations as a result of the Community of Practice’s efforts and increased discussion and awareness of mental health problems.
One lesson Hawthorn has for others in the education sector is to align your mental health initiatives with your institution’s existing goals. She said, "This will help you garner strong senior management support which can be critical to ongoing efforts."