Alyssa Dunn, a professor in the College of Education, wants Michigan State students and faculty to know going back to normal isn’t an option.
“Normal was never healthy to begin with,” Dunn said of the pre-pandemic reality that was abruptly pulled out from under the world 20 months ago. “Normal wasn’t working, and it wasn’t helping.”
Dunn was referring to the pressures of student life and balancing mental health with academic success. It has been widely acknowledged by psychologists and those who study the mental health of young people that the pandemic has taken a massive toll on the mental wellbeing of college students.
Studies have been done on the effects of isolation and online learning on mental health. Traditionally, students and teachers have functioned in an in-person environment, and universities jumped at the opportunity to return to a semi-regular teaching structure this fall.
But, this back-to-school season has been permeated by a new, nagging worry about how students’ mental health would fare on campus after a year of online learning.
Professors have modified classroom policies in the interest of students’ mental health. University administration often includes disclaimers in emails to the student body that these are difficult times, and everyone’s mental health is the top priority in the new school year.
In light of all this, what does mental health actually look like in the post-COVID-19 educational environment?
In every MSU class syllabus, students will find a section about the university’s policies regarding mental health in the classroom, delineating a set of standards for the relationship between students and professors.
The required information includes links to MSU’s Counseling and Psychiatric Services, or CAPS, and a description of disability accommodations and diversity commitments. This section likely takes up half a page at most.
Human biology junior Kirthika Krishnan said she’d like to see these guidelines expanded on.
“I would really like to see guaranteed mental health absences added to the syllabus,” Krishnan said.
Krishnan described how her French class last fall had two absences granted to each student, and the professor would not ask for any student’s reason for taking the day off. She said she ended up using both of her days off.
“Honestly, they helped my performance in the course a lot,” Krishnan said.
Krishnan said her days are occupied with work for her five classes while her evenings are filled with club meetings and practices for her acapella group. She said the stress of school and extracurriculars is a given in her life, but she can’t control when bad days happen.
“It’s not like I wake up deciding to feel a certain way on a certain day,” Krishnan said. “There might just be a day in the middle of the semester where I’m just like, ‘I can’t do this right now.’”
This is the case for many students who balance full course loads and multiple extracurriculars.
The attention to mental health issues in college-aged Americans isn’t a new phenomenon. In recent years, followed by a rise in suicides by people ages 18 to 24, national attention has focused on young people and the reasons for the decline in their mental wellness.
In February, The Brookings Institution found that over 80% of college students reported in a survey that the pandemic has impacted their lives through “increased isolation, loneliness, stress, and sadness.”
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These feelings of distress, coupled with the regular stressors of college academics, have forced students and university faculty to make space for mental health in the classroom in ways they hadn’t considered prior.
For some professors, this can look like trimming down the number of assignments they give or granting more extensions to due dates on larger projects. Others schedule certain days off throughout the semester to give students a break from the constant stream of work that classes bring.
Last year, in lieu of spring break, MSU students were granted two “mental health days” in March. During those days, professors were not supposed to assign any additional classwork or projects, but many students said their mental health days were still consumed by homework and didn’t quite serve the purpose of improving mental health.
Dunn explained several ways in which teachers can accommodate their students’ mental health in the classroom. She’s on sabbatical from MSU this semester, but said she found methods that worked in her online classes last year and feels they’re still applicable.
Dunn said prioritizing her students’ mental health meant “having very flexible deadlines for assignments” and stressed the importance of going with the flow.
She said she hopes the pandemic has reminded professors and students of the need to center each other’s humanity.
“I think too often, it’s easy for faculty to think that our class is the most important thing that students are doing at any given moment,” Dunn said.
Dunn wants professors to know that in order to take their students’ mental health into account, they need to remember that “students are full people and our class may be just one very small thing on a large list of things that students are experiencing.”
In spite of everyone’s best efforts, these issues can easily get lost in translation when there’s such a large gap between students and professors in the academic setting, and in those cases, mental health care falls on the university as an institution.
While MSU offers a variety of mental health resources, it can be hard to access these opportunities, media and information senior Faye Kollig said.
“My experience with MSU mental health services has definitely been a mixed bag,” Kollig said.
Kollig’s experience with CAPS included seeing a psychiatrist and a crisis counselor, and they said it was difficult to schedule the necessary meetings for crisis patients given the long waiting periods for mental health professionals on campus.
Regardless of the challenges to accessing professional help on campus, Kollig still feels the network of support provided by being on campus has been helpful.
“Overall, I feel like once I started really taking advantage of all the resources MSU has, I feel like I’m really glad they’re there,” they said.
Kollig is a member of Spartan Support Network, a group dedicated to promoting openness and erasing the stigma surrounding issues of mental wellbeing among MSU students.
Biochemistry junior Roksana Riddle felt similarly, expressing that while university mental health systems may not always be up to par, there are still opportunities for students and professors to make space for mental health in the academic setting.
“There are ways to be accommodating to students when they need it,” Riddle said. “But, I don’t think (the university) is capable of managing student mental health in one way or another.”
Riddle also acknowledged the difficulties of forming strong relationships between students and professors in a public health situation that puts many classes online or in a hybrid format.
Students seem to be relying primarily on their professors to understand the struggles of maintaining mental health in a strange school environment.
Psychology senior Asia Rivett said she felt professors are rising to the occasion and she thinks professors this year are “even more understanding of mental wellness” than last year.
“I think they’re really conscious and respectful of boundaries students set during the pandemic,” Rivett said.
Rivett noted that this year is an adjustment for faculty as well as students, and the collective excitement about being back on campus brings her joy amidst the stress of school.
“You can really tell that everyone’s enthusiastic and happy to be back,” Rivett said. “It’s really wholesome to see everybody so genuinely excited to have conversations one-on-one.”
This story is part of our Nov. 16 print edition. Read the full issue here.
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