Thursday, December 2, 2021

MSU faculty shares victories, struggles with mental health

November 17, 2021
Photo illustration of scale. Shot on Nov. 10, 2021.
Photo illustration of scale. Shot on Nov. 10, 2021. —
Photo by Lauren DeMay | The State News

Jason Smith, a teaching specialist in the College of Engineering, has quite a bit on his plate. 

On top of teaching 350 students a semester, he and his wife welcomed their third child just a few months ago. Smith recently noticed that the responsibilities of his job, his family and a pandemic have hindered his mental health.

“The pressure of always needing to be ‘on’ or my best because of the responsibility I feel to those around me is the biggest drain on my mental health,” Smith said.  “Which if depleted enough will negatively impact those I care about, which will stress me out more — and you can see where this goes.”

It is not uncommon for faculty to feel overwhelmed and mentally drained or exhausted. The job of a college instructor or professor is multi-faceted — more than just teaching courses is involved.

“Faculty decisions are competitive by nature, and there's always a desire to be doing more,” anthropology professor Mindy Morgan said. “We have to be excellent researchers, we have to be excellent teachers, we also have to be good colleagues.” 

English education professor Hui-Ling Malone agreed, citing the added pressure to produce work beyond teaching.

“There’s a lot of pressure to publish or write, but you also have to teach," Malone said. "I have a heavier teaching load, so it feels like there are a lot of demands to be productive. … You constantly feel like you’re not doing enough in the academy, and that definitely affects my well being and how I see myself — and how I feel as a productive person.”

It’s clear some professors and instructors are burnt out. The question is: What is MSU  doing to take care of its faculty?

“I feel like every week or so, I'm seeing an email or something from President (Samuel L.) Stanley or just folks that work with him very intricately, and I appreciate those emails that are always embedded with links and resources for faculty, for parents, just for everyone who might fall under the umbrella of the university,” professor in the College of Education Raven Jones Stanbrough said. 

Morgan agreed that MSU provides faculty with resources on how to seek mental health support and the significance of doing so. However, she feels as though they need to take it a step further.

“When they say that you need to ... take mental health breaks, that’s actually an added burden,” Morgan said. “You have to seek it out; it’s not like they’re providing it.”

Animal science professor Christine Skelly emphasized the importance of compartmentalizing her professional life from her personal life so that if something goes wrong in her career, it does not bleed over into the rest of her life. 

Aside from their own mental health, many college instructors also have the added pressure of caring for their students’ health, Skelly said.

“I really want to see my students have a healthy emotional well-being,” Skelly said. “I've seen the ramifications when stress and anxiety get in the way. They can't get everything they should be getting out of their college experience.”

Secondary traumatic stress, or STS, is something many university faculty say they deal with. STS is defined by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department as “a set of observable reactions to working with people who have been traumatized and mirrors the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.” 

Public health and food safety professor Douglas Moyer said he shoulders the burdens  his students share with him. Attempting to empathize with and protect students has taken a toll on him due to STS, even if he is happy to help them..

STS is something that clinical instructor in the School of Social Work Elizabeth Montemayor has experienced in her permanent job as a manager of Child Protective Services, or CPS, in Ingham County. She often talks to her social work students about the relevance of STS to their future careers and how it is important to be intentional with self-care.

MSU houses 17 degree-granting colleges, and each one of these colleges has its own way of going about helping its faculty. The College of Education is one that is intentional with mental health for both their faculty and their students, Jones Stanbrough said.

“There is time and space for us to even do chair yoga or just breathing exercises,” Jones Stanbrough said. “We talk about how this gives us reprieve and allows us to talk amongst ourselves as faculty and then take it even further and see how we can implement these same practices into our teaching.”

Morgan said society has trained people to work themselves to an extreme because it “makes them better.” This concept is not only applicable to college instructors and professors, but individuals from all careers.

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“There has been an almost valuing of overwork to either jobs or classwork or something of that sort to the detriment of mental health," Morgan said. "People would take pride in the fact that they slept only a few hours or how many hours they were putting in a lab or how many hours they were spending writing."

Because of this, when one does not accomplish a goal they have set for themselves, it can be emotionally and mentally tough to get over.

“Forgiving myself when I fall short of any of these goals and readily forgiving others for any slights (is important),” Smith said. “I find that my darkest days usually have something to do with anger at myself or another person; I need to let that anger go before I can make it right.”

In many careers, individuals often struggle to keep work at work. They tend to bring it home with them and find it difficult to set boundaries. This has become even more of a challenge with the age of technology and remote work.

“It's really hard to step away when everything is so accessible in your home,” Montemayor said. “I had to set all of my work equipment up in a separate room because at first I was doing it in the kitchen, and I just couldn't stand to look at it every single day. … It's just hard to separate work and home life when your work is at home.”

Access to email in just a few touches on a smartphone has been in existence for over a decade now, but the temptation to constantly be working can be detrimental to mental health. 

“Once the university moved to remote, all of the boundaries between the office work and home work were dissolved, and they were happening at the same time, and there are multiple demands on people, and that can be very difficult to negotiate,” Morgan said. “There was nowhere to go. There was nowhere to escape.”

Setting boundaries when it comes to external communication is something Jones Stanbrough said she has worked to do. She prioritizes her mental health and her family instead of anxiously awaiting a work email on a Saturday morning.

“Something that I really, really enjoy doing is just tapping out from people or just sending a heads up like, ‘Hey, I’m a little bit tired, so y’all just give me a couple days,’” Jones Stanbrough said. “Giving myself grace to know that I don’t have to respond right away to anybody if that’s not what I feel like I need to do.” 

Moyer also sees the importance of taking time to himself if he feels his mental health is in jeopardy.

“If I feel it's overwhelming, then I take a day off or contact the mindfulness people again and have a quick session," Moyer said. "I know there are resources for faculty regarding mental health … someone you can talk to.” 

Instructors and professors work with hundreds of people, whether they be colleagues, administrators or students. It can become easy to not focus on their personal mental health.

“I have a therapist, which I highly recommend,” Malone said. “One thing (I learned) is articulating my feelings to myself. I used to think, ‘The world is what it is. These things are happening to me, but I’m fine.’ But if you don't get in touch with your feelings … (they) will manifest in all kinds of ways, and that can be damaging.”

It is crucial that faculty members are intentional about taking care of their mental health. Some ways to do this are to partake in activities like yoga, walking in nature and being around loved ones.

Family is immensely important to Montemayor, she said. Spending time with her immediate and extended family allows her to care for her mental health and relieve stress.

“You have to make time for yourself,” Montemayor said. “That’s a must.” 

For Smith, this looks like fueling his body by working out.

“I’ve always felt that physical and mental health are like the proverbial chicken and the egg,” he said. “They’re tied together for sure, but it's not always clear which impacts which more. All I know is that when I’m starting to feel 'off' and I don’t know what the cause is … the most helpful thing for me is usually to prime my mind by attending to the body … doing a workout, going for a walk, even just cleaning something. … It all helps.”

Moreover, Smith said it’s important to build a strong support system. He attributes his family, friends and colleagues as the reason he is able to have a professional life as well as a personal life.

“I’m lucky enough to have an amazing wife who isn’t afraid to call me out if I’m not myself and offers me love and support to help keep me at my best," Smith said. "I hope I provide as much value to her in return. I am also very lucky to have parents, siblings, in-laws who would bend over backwards to support me and my family. Last but not least, I also have a great network of co-workers here at MSU that I am happy to call friends who also are indispensable in helping me stay healthy.”

Skelly said she was thankful for the resources that MSU provided for switching to online learning.

Teaching virtually is not always sunshine and rainbows. It can present challenges in building relationships between instructors and students, Malone said.

“I am teaching virtually, so that is more difficult because we’re isolated,” Malone said. “I first just want to make sure that we know who we are and that I care about you and we care about each other. This is a space where we can be vulnerable, and I try to be as understanding as possible. I really want students to communicate with me if they aren’t in a good place.”

One thing that most faculty, students and professionals can agree on is that maintaining your mental health is vital to your overall well-being and contentment with life. 

If you or anyone you know is struggling with their mental health, contact MSU Counseling & Psychiatric Services, or CAPS, at (517) 355-8270 or visit their office on the third floor of the Olin Center.

This story is part of our Nov. 16 print edition. Read the full issue here.

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