How can we support the mental health of faculty and staff for the benefit of these individuals, as well as students and educational institutions?
Mental health issues among college and university students1 have increased significantly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to 2 recent college mental health surveys, nearly 75% of students said the pandemic had made their mental health worse,2 and 30% of students report having more difficulty accessing mental health care.3
Recent data suggests that the mental health of faculty and staff has also been impacted by the pandemic, with more than 50% of faculty respondents reporting a significant increase in emotional exhaustion and work-related stress in 1 survey.4 So, in addition to supporting students, what can be done to better support faculty and staff? Although colleges and universities are institutions of higher learning that promote knowledge and scholarship, they are also among the largest employers in many communities, and as large employers they must be concerned about health mental in the workplace.
As recent surveys and claims data indicate, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, isolation, grief, substance use, suicidal thoughts, sleep difficulties and economic challenges. Faculty and staff are addressing these issues on several fronts: supporting students, helping each other, and supporting their employers. For higher education institutions, the optimal approach to large-scale health issues should employ a public health lens.
At the University of Michigan, such challenges have prompted multiple approaches from different academic entities. In the spirit of sharing best practices, the University of Michigan Eisenberg Family Depression Center, its Workplace Mental Health Solutions program, and the university’s Student Wellness Partners offer the following key interventions to support well- be faculty and staff. These interventions are based on the literature and recent experience of workplace mental health programs.5
Make mental health a top priority
Institutional leaders – presidents, chancellors, provosts and deans – should emphasize the importance of mental health and use their influence to support initiatives to improve mental health and reduce stress. As an example, in 2020, the University of Michigan’s provost and vice president for student life appointed a 12-member committee comprised of deans, faculty, staff, and students to review the needs and campus wellness resources. The committee shared several key recommendations and outlined achievable implementation steps.6
Convene key stakeholders
Stakeholders may include faculty, staff, students, public safety officials, health service personnel, and mental health clinicians who play a key role in the short- and long-term well-being of all members of the campus community. Many academic experts involved tend to operate in silos; Formally bringing these critical partners together can encourage new connections and collaborations to improve mental health across the enterprise.
Use Resource Mapping
Develop an online menu or roadmap of resources that makes it simple and easy to access mental health care. One of the biggest barriers to using services7 is a simple lack of visibility and clarity on how to access help. The expansion of telehealth models has improved access to mental health services.
Train faculty and staff
Provide training to help faculty and staff recognize and respond to mental health concerns. Training should be hands-on, at no additional cost to the employee, and delivered virtually or online. Training should use interactive educational techniques involving role-playing with common case scenarios seen on campus (eg, a distressed student or a distraught colleague). Core principles of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) should be embedded and support training.
Develop peer support programs
Ambassador and peer support programs involve training staff and faculty to help their peer groups recognize and respond to mental health crises.8 Peer helpers are often seen as more accessible and immediately relevant to many people, reducing a major barrier to seeking help. Ongoing support should be provided to these ambassadors through ongoing coaching, to optimize the role of immediate help rather than relying on more traditional resources.
Implement continuous training
As professors and other instructors know very well, teaching something once is not enough. Higher education institutions should provide faculty and staff with coaching on how to incorporate best practices into their teaching and courses, and provide feedback on best practices, what went wrong, problems encountered , etc9 Best practices typically include tips to help students, such as more flexible policies on deadlines, grading, and adding/removing courses.
Follow a strategic framework
Above all, schools and colleges should consider developing or adopting a strategic framework to guide the creation of mentally healthier campuses.ten For example, the Okanagan Charter—an international charter that provides institutions with a common language, principles, and framework for becoming health-promoting campuses—provides a vital and widely recognized blueprint for promoting and protecting mental health on campus.11
Promoting and preserving mental health on a university campus is everyone’s business. Fostering the mental health of faculty and staff provides direct benefits to these individuals, as well as to students and educational institutions themselves. Adopting a public health lens on mental health in the academic workplace can be useful and broadly effective, and it also makes good business sense. New models of remote and hybrid work and other ways that current students will join the changing workforce also need to be addressed.
Dr Riba is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan and co-director of Workplace Mental Health Solutions at the Eisenberg Family Depression Center at the University of Michigan. Dr Malani is the Chief Medical Officer of the University of Michigan and Professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Michigan. Dr Ernst is associate vice president of Student Life for Health and Wellness at the University of Michigan and executive director of the University Health Service at the University of Michigan. Dr Parikh is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan and co-director of Workplace Mental Health Solutions at the Eisenberg Family Depression Center at the University of Michigan.
The authors would like to thank Danielle S. Taubman, MPH, program evaluation specialist at the University of Michigan Eisenberg Family Depression Center, for her assistance.
1. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. Mental Health, Addiction and Wellbeing in Higher Education: Supporting the Whole Student. The press of the national academies; 2021.
2. Student Mental Health Survey (September 2020). active minds; 2020.
3. Eisenberg D, Lipson SK, Heinze J. The Healthy Minds Study: Winter/Spring 2021 Data Report. Health Minds Network; 2021.
4. Course Hero. Faculty Welfare and Careers. course hero. February 24, 2022. Accessed March 1, 2022.
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6. Regents of the University of Michigan. Report of the Innovative Approaches to Student Mental Health Review Panel. The University of Michigan; 2021.
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10. Petrie K, Joyce S, Tan L, et al. A Framework for Creating Mentally Healthier Workplaces: A Perspective. Aust NZJ Psychiatry. 2018;52(1):15-23.
11. International Conference on Health Promoting Universities and Colleges. Okanagan Charter: An International Charter for Health Promoting Universities and Colleges. The University of British Columbia; 2015.