I finished reading Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire the other day. An excellent read! I encourage you to read the Globe and Mail’s review or just pick the book up. HIghly recommended for anyone concerned about mental health.
Queens University has, in my opinion, really been the leader of higher education institutions trying to get a grasp on students’ mental health. Their push was the result of a very unfortunate string of tragic events a few years ago. I’ve blogged about that leadership before here. Queens released a monumental report outlining a number of strategies to help increase student mental wellness.
A few key snipers from the report. Students’ self-reported strategies for dealing with stress:
• Talking to friends/family (74%);
• Distractions (64%);
• Getting enough sleep (57%);
• Regular physical activity (57%);
• Setting priorities (56%);
• Eating a healthy diet (51%); and
• Using time management (43%).
The key suggestions in the report:
- Faculty should be willing to accommodate alternative exam needs. I’ve read the report and I’m not totally clear what that means. Clearly we have a legal obligation to accommodate students registered with the Disability office. Beyond that, it gets really tricky. I see the benefit of accommodation, but flexibility comes with huge costs around exam integrity and fairness.
- Classes offered all 12 months of the year. This is meant to allow students to spread the work load across the full year as opposed to the usual 2 semesters (8 months). It also helps students who fail a course – they can redo it during the summer and get back on track. My Faculty is notoriously bad around this and I will continue to push for improvements.
- Make student mental health a part of regular courses. This could include student research around mental health, perhaps best suited for courses in psychology but definitely not excluded form other areas. A few years ago a group of my students authored a managerial accounting case around the costs of institutionalizing mentally ill patients inside prisons. It made for very interesting group discussions.
- Linking faith-based support and mental health support. This one surprises me. I know that many students are spiritual if not necessarily religious (a very important distinction). Apparently there is research to suggest that students that feel supported in their spirituality are mentally healthier. Very interesting and something I will definitely follow up with.
- Reducing or removing stigma. No surprise here – students feel awkward or conscious about approaching someone for mental health help. We need to … we must … make mental health a normal part of conversations on every campus so that students feel equally comfortable talking about broken legs, STDs, or mental illness.
I write this as students are busy studying and stressing over exams. Stress is a common thing on a university campus. Learning should not be easy. Good learning should be challenging; requiring students to dig deep, reflect on positions they may never have considered before, adjust their outlook on the world. We commonly get into discussions that require students to move from position A to position B or at least deeply contemplate such a move. No question, that is stressful.
Professors are not immune although I don’t expect students to feel any sympathy since in their eyes we are usually the reason for their stress. Fair enough. Professors’ lives include a job that can be all consuming, especially if you love your research and enjoy working with students. Add in a dearth of strong leadership, a shortage of people to spread the work, plenty of opportunities to try new things – and the academic life can quickly become a rat race. Without a doubt that is why I started yoga, golf, and classical music. The decisions to start those (all independent) were not driven consciously by stress but I now see in hindsight that the outcome from all three is VERY positive. I have to give a huge shout out to the instructors and yogis at Kelowna Moksha – since March 2011 I’ve been a devotee and seriously notice a mental difference when I get to yoga and when I don’t. Thank you Kylie et al!!
Today I was reading a post from Inside Higher Ed, a great source of everything academic, when I came across the following piece of advice:
If you give your life to the institution, don’t expect the institution to reward you with a life. Fight hard for what really matters to your happiness. Sleep, eat well, and exercise. Consider not eating at your desk at least once a week; schedule in exercise. If you’re depleted or ill, you will not teach well or write well.
That is SO true. I’ve been an professor for over ten years and especially since coming to UBC Okanagan in 2007, I have given much to the institution. I’ve enjoyed it for sure. Lots of challenges and opportunities but really it is not worth burying myself for this institution. Literally and figuratively. I don’t blame UBC, UBC Okanagan, or my Faculty – I suspect that every large institution and corporation out there can find itself encouraging people to devote themselves to the organization without truly appreciating what that means from the individual perspective. The institution is like a large black hole of energy sucking in small stars. It may feel good to be a part of something but rarely does that black hole spit you out with more energy than you began. (That’s probably a really bad analogy and I suspect my physics and astronomy colleagues will correct me!)
The Inside Higher Ed post finished with a quick reminder of Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day. I first ran into that at an excellent Parker Palmer retreat back in the spring – it truly is a wonderful poem but particularly the last portion,
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
That’s an excellent wake up call. Each of us only has one life, one body, one mind. We’d better take care of it and do the best we can. This is a one shot deal.
Queens University has really led the charge in Canada to address mental health and mental illness on campus and this story is just one more small initiative they are trying. I have long wondered how I or one of my colleagues would handle a dire situation. In my 10+ years as a university professor I have had conversations with students and suggested they take advantage of certain resources provided to students. I know that even taking the time to listen to students talk about their lives outside of the classroom is important. Sure its messy and lots of professors will avoid it, but let’s not forget that students are people and they have real problems, real issues, and a real life beyond the class. Quite honestly those outside issues commonly trump anything we are discussing inside the class and really cannot be ignored. I’m not suggesting that I have the answers but I do have the capacity to listen. And honestly, every single professor and teacher out there should take the time to listen to our students.
That’s why I think this green folder idea is pretty cool. A quick source to identify a number of resources to turn to when the conversation goes somewhere beyond what I can handle. Every campus has experts on campus, let’s get those advertised and widely known. I’d be happy to point students the right direction. Only after listening to them of course!
Here’s an excellent article from Macleans Online today about the extent of mental health issues on university campuses. Its actually frightening and scary and I wish I could do more to help. Students, staff and faculty – please comment on your thoughts about this story.
Click the image below for the full article.
This is a great example of trying to open the conversation about mental health in your workplace. Unless you work by yourself, the odds are pretty good that someone at your place of work is dealing with a mental health issue. What choice do you make? Start the conversation or brush it under the carpet? How about encouraging your workplace to host a Mental Health First Aid workshop?
I was thinking about mental illness and stigma as I read this article. Why do we take coworker’s physical illness in stride but avoid discussions of mental illness? Is it because we can’t see the ailment? Somehow the lack of a physical nature makes the topic taboo? Or is that so much of what we do at work these days requires our brains to be operating at full capacity and that if we operate at anything less we’re letting down the team? Think of it as a canoe voyage, something that requires great physical output from each team member. If one team member was to suffer a physical ailment that prevented them from paddling, I can imagine the other team members starting to calculate the dead weight of the ill person. “Toss him, we’re faster without him”. With so many businesses requiring amazing brains pulling together, perhaps the avoidance is not much different than the canoe analogy? What do you think – am I out to lunch?
Click the image below for the full Wall Street Journal article.
A great article from USA today about encouraging your college kids to stay healthy amidst all the higher education stress. One of the recommendations is to connect to the university health services right away and know what they have to offer. Here is the link for UBC Okanagan students for both mental and physical health services: http://www.ubc.ca/okanagan/students/health-wellness/welcome.html.
Click the image for the full article.
Here’s a decent article about the requirement for employers to be creating mentally healthy workplaces for employees.
A few comments grabbed my attention. First, “unpaid overtime can lead to mental harm” – having worked in the accounting profession and now in higher education, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced paid overtime – does that exist? Unpaid overtime is fun for a while, when you love what you’re doing you can always “buckle down and get it done” but eventually we’ll burn out. Work hard and then slack off is my advice. Slacking off means yoga or golf in my case.
The second great comment comes later in the article, “positive psychological health occurs when organizations offer consistent recognition and acknowledgement and are fair”. So true. Acknowledgement and recognition go a long way. If you’re a manager or a boss try encouraging an employee once a day. I suspect that will contribute to a much healthier workplace. For some reason, people find giving (and receiving) compliments difficult.
Last comment: what about Fridays? Are they just that much better?