A Letter to Faculty on Student Wellness
To: NYU Faculty
From: Zoe Ragouzeos, Ph.D., Student Mental Health and Melissa Carter, Spiritual Life and Mindfulness
Date: Wednesday, February 10, 2021
Thank you for your ongoing support of our undergraduate and graduate students as we all search for new ways to navigate what continues to be an extraordinary time in our collective lives.
Mental health has been a significant issue for students for many years now. This year’s pandemic, sharp incidents of racial injustice, and political turmoil have compounded these issues, and there has been ongoing documentation of the negative impact on young people and their mental health. National data show a high prevalence of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, suicidality, and other concerns in student populations over the past decade. A survey by the American Council on Education that predates the pandemic year found that 82 percent of college presidents agreed or strongly agreed that faculty are spending more time addressing student mental health concerns than three years ago.
We know that these efforts may be taxing not only on your time, but on your own wellness. Keeping in mind that you are experts in your disciplines and not in mental health (for the most part), we hope to support faculty in supporting our students. Below, we offer some suggestions and direct you to resources that can provide the clinical support students need and often seek.
We have repeatedly heard from students how much they value their coursework and how their respect for faculty has provided them a fulfilling educational experience. As we begin the Spring 2021 semester together, we hope that you might consider setting norms that promote well-being, social connectedness, inclusivity, and development.
Suggestions might include:
- Verbally acknowledge the challenges of the current time: Teaching during a time of crisis is difficult. Intense emotions such as fear, anxiety, sadness and anger affect our ability to retain information. Students look to faculty for leadership, and a simple moment of acknowledgement in the classroom gives everyone — including the instructor — a chance to reflect as part of a community that we are all in this together and while we have individual circumstances, our need for healthy coping and resilience is similar. Outside the context of our current events, acknowledging moments of student stress during the semester (midterms and finals, for example) can go a long way in validating for students that faculty are aware and appreciate the heavy load they carry.
- Consider deadlines and time zones: Sleep is important to mental health and a small change to deadlines can reinforce, in a subtle way, good sleep habits. Assignments can be due by 5pm, instead of by midnight or 9am. When possible, please schedule courses taking into account the time zones of all enrolled students. If this is impossible, allow those for whom attending synchronously means waking up at 5AM or earlier to participate in alternative ways. Although these changes do not guarantee that students get the sleep they need, we can avoid signaling an expectation that work is required during early morning hours or late at night.
- Provide a statement on mental health to your class: Authentically conveying that mental health matters to you is helpful to students who may be struggling. Doing so helps to set expectations, normalizes the need to seek help, and emphasizes the link between mental health and academic success. You might consider adding a statement to a course syllabus or providing mental health referral information at the beginning of a class period or even throughout the semester. Including information on NYU resources removes barriers between students and support services. A sample statement for your consideration:
- “Our aim is for students to be as successful academically as they can, and to help them overcome any impediments to that. Any student who may be struggling and believes this may affect their performance in this course is urged to contact the Moses Center for Student Accessibility at 212 998-4980 to discuss academic accommodations. If mental health assistance is needed, call NYU’s 24/7 Wellness Exchange hotline at 212 443-9999. Furthermore, please approach me if you feel comfortable doing so. This will enable me to provide relevant resources or referrals.”
- Facilitate Student-to-Student interactions to cultivate cross class connection: Many students report feeling isolated and lonely. Others report feeling overwhelmed by remote learning. Students’ courses might be one of few opportunities to interact with others. Consider ways for students to interact with each other both academically and socially (and always with safety in mind), including group projects, meet/greets, icebreakers and other connection exercises, and study groups so that community may be built within the classroom no matter the size of the class or the teaching modality being used.
- Provide Options for class participation for different types of learners: Long before remote learning, some students reported that they feel uncomfortable raising their hand in class. They would prefer to participate in alternative ways. We know that many courses factor class participation into a student’s final grade. In order to accommodate all students, we hope you will consider a variety of options for student participation in your course. Reaction papers, blogs, small group discussions, or thoughts shared in the chat feature of Zoom are all ways that offer students some choice in how they contribute to the discussion; they also allow those who are not in the Eastern Time Zone to fully participate and appreciate course content.
- Be prepared to recognize and refer students in distress: If you are concerned about a student, please take advantage of NYU's clinical expertise by contacting a counselor at the Wellness Exchange 212 443 9999, which is available 24/7 to respond to an NYU student in distress. Training is also available to assist faculty in gaining the skills and knowledge necessary to recognize students in distress, understand the mental health and wellness resources available to students as well as the appropriate mechanisms for raising the alert regarding students about whom you are concerned. Faculty should contact Zoe Ragouzeos at email@example.com to request a training for their departments/units.
These tools and actions may seem small, but they go a long way in cultivating a supportive community at a time where students are telling us they need it most. We thank you for your recognition that now more than ever, students need the entire campus community to provide caring, compassionate support so that they can cope with any mental health challenges they face, clearing the way for them to achieve academic success.
Best wishes in 2021,
Zoe Ragouzeos, Ph.D., Student Mental Health
Melissa Carter, Spiritual Life and Mindfulness