The need to support students' mental health is evident on college and university campuses across the nation. Returning to campus, in-person instruction and more frequent social interactions have added stress for students on top of challenges the pandemic presents.
An Oct. 18 memo from senior vice presidents Jonathan Wickert and Toyia Younger and Faculty Senate president Andrea Wheeler outlines ways faculty and staff can support students' mental health needs.
Mental health concerns among college students increased before the pandemic and were exacerbated by it, said Kristen Sievert, interim director of student counseling services. Iowa State faculty and staff play a role in supporting the well-being of students by creating a community of care.
"The level of crises that we are seeing coming into the counseling center is far greater than previous years," she said. "Students have significant concerns about the ability to keep themselves safe, and we see an increase in the complexity or severity of what students are dealing with."
Sievert said faculty and staff are in a unique position to provide support.
"When they notice a student is struggling, they can reach out and share their observations, express care and share resources," she said.
Validating a student's feelings and recognizing it is a trying time can be an important step, Sievert said. Students may have financial pressure or have lost a loved one because of the pandemic.
Being able to spot signs a student is struggling is key. Changes in mood or behavior from how instructors typically view a student can be signs. Showing up late for class or declining work quality can indicate a larger issue.
"Students expressing things like hopelessness or worthlessness or saying things like, 'What is the point of all of this anyway' or 'I can't keep doing this,' are signs," Sievert said.
Michelle Roling, student counseling services associate director and outreach director, said group work can cause more anxiety for students in the classroom. Instructors asking students to reach out to them if they have concerns about group work can make a difference.
Many instructors include student health and wellness language in their class syllabi, but Sievert said it's important to return to it numerous times throughout a semester.
"Students are getting so much information at the beginning of a semester, so it is helpful to share things multiple times," she said.
Faculty or staff who notice a student dealing with an issue shouldn't hesitate to engage them.
"We want kindness, and we want people to be direct," Roling said. "We want to come from a place of 'I am noticing' or 'I am curious about.' Mental health has so much stigma and so many people don't want to talk about it that often it is a relief if someone names it for a student."
The goal is to get students to say what they are concerned about, inform them of options and encourage them to use them. Helping students identify what support looks like can help them connect with the right resources. That can be counseling or simply taking time to talk to a parent or loved one to reconnect with a support system, Roling said.
If the situation could involve a student hurting themselves or others, walking with them to a resource on campus may be necessary for their safety.
"You are not expected to be a mental health provider when you reach out to a student," Sievert said. "You don't have to have all the answers or worry about saying or doing just the right thing."
Iowa State has many wellness resources available to students, but two are set especially to a student's daily pace.
Therapy Assistance Online is a free, confidential self-help tool that navigates mental well-being. The interactive sessions help people gain self-awareness to achieve their goals. It is available to everyone with an @iastate.edu email address.
Let's Talk is a confidential space for students to meet briefly with student counseling services staff without committing to ongoing counseling. It is located in the Multicultural Center in the Memorial Union on Mondays and Tuesdays from 3 to 5 p.m. It's first come, first served.
Roling said it's important for faculty, staff and students to remember to meet their basic needs of food, drink and rest each day to enhance their mental health.
Faculty and staff are important in helping students, but equally important is that they take care of themselves.
"You can't help others if you don't have the self-care piece," Sievert said.
Finding small amounts of time throughout a day to support mental health -- for example, taking a walk outside -- can have a significant impact, she said.
Setting limits and boundaries is necessary. Understand you are not the only one trying to help, she added.