Normalize Telling Students That They Are Enough (TW: mental health issues and suicide)
It was my first round of finals at UC Berkeley as I heard throughout the dorms that another student had jumped off of the open balcony on the 12th floor of Evans Hall. The situation seemed surreal, of course we didn’t know of any underlying mental health conditions or extraneous circumstances, but the truth rang true nonetheless. The stress and mental anguish of high-stakes academia became too much for someone, and for several others before them. UC Berkeley eventually closed the balcony and started offering stress-relieving services (llama petting) during our study week. The inadequacy of resources and the dismissal of our collective trauma was disappointing coming from a historically progressive institution.
The issue of declining mental health during undergraduate and graduate programs is often a taboo subject, saved only for close peers and confidants within the safe walls of the wet lab. It’s not something easily brought up to mentors or authority figures who can ultimately decide your fate. It’s not like primary school where the secondary job of teachers was to look for signs of a tough home life and gently talk to students and see how they could help. We lose that privilege once we decide we want to pay to continue school. The academics are not trained as casual therapists or to be observant for mental health difficulties, as they are trained for academia and to teach a subject. And when teachers and professors go above and beyond for the well-being of students, they have their heart in the right place, but much of the time do not have the resources or time needed to navigate difficult mental health situations.
And that’s not necessarily their fault. There is little training (beyond Title IX, that helps faculty report abusive situations) offered to faculty and student teachers to open up as a confidant to their students and researchers while maintaining a professional relationship. And if there was training, many simply would not have the time or interest to attend. If it’s not directly supporting research or promoting subject learning, it isn’t set as a priority. It would be of great benefit to students, and ultimately the university, to enact mandatory training to support students through times of great stress and adversity. This training would allow faculty to recognize signs of depression, withdrawal, and stress.
Constructive criticism and feedback are important, however. It’s the delicate balance of motivational criticism with mental health needs that require resources and training, something that many universities aren’t willing to give. There’s the idea that school and stoicism are intertwined, that discussing feelings should be left out of the talks of academia, and that students should seek comfort and support elsewhere. The issue with this is that when you call someone a “mentor,” they take on the role of a guide; this includes guiding you through your journey and inevitably includes emotional responses. Students have the capacity to completely burn themselves out, completely shut down, or both. And when this happens, it negatively affects research. Students perform well when they are doing well. But considering the current political climate combined with the global pandemic, very few students are doing well.
We underestimate the importance and mental health boost that positive reinforcement can give from a superior. I’ve gotten compliments from which I’ve ridden the high for weeks. On the other side, I’ve received unearned and harsh criticism that lingered in the back of my mind for months, made me question my self-worth and whether I am “good enough” for my field, and led to a mild existential crisis. It takes a long time to pull yourself from depression. It takes so, so much to keep going with school, voluntarily, when your mental health is severely compromised from an existing or emerging disorder.
San Francisco State University has taken initiatives to open up discussion about mental health, and it’s been very encouraging. They’ve sent out surveys asking us how we’re doing emotionally and have held mental health workshops and provide mental health resources for students. The next step, however, would be including faculty in those trainings and providing resources for authority figures to navigate their role in the student experience. The success of the faculty is entirely dependent on the success of the student, and it is in everyone’s best interest to have adequate training on navigating compromised mental health for all university personnel. Vanderbilt University and the University of California system provides resources for faculty to recognize and help manage student stress while being mindful of the faculty’s stress, burnout levels, and “compassion fatigue”. How the faculty utilizes and applies these resources, however, varies among individuals. I personally didn’t see any of these tactics being used among the faculty in STEM when I was in the UC system.
It’s not hard to give space for a student. Ask them if they’re doing okay. When they show signs of falling behind, do not reprimand but come from a place of understanding. It doesn’t take training to hold emotional space for other people (but emotional intelligence can be practiced and learned), and it doesn’t take any training to validate someone’s experience. You don’t have to tell them that they’re doing great, just tell them that they are enough.