Sunday, December 4, 2022

Why I permitted mental health absences in class

Why I permitted mental health absences in class


SEPTEMBER 27, 2021 — Editor’s note: This op-ed by Mary Dixson, professor of instruction in the Department of Communication at UTSA, originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.

Five years ago, I noticed a shift in my college classroom. More students were struggling but not with the course content or the assignments. As I sat across from them in meeting after meeting, I realized they were struggling with their mental health. One student expressed the stress he constantly felt to get a 4.0 and make his family proud. Another felt she didn’t belong in college, something we now recognize as “imposter syndrome.” Another felt the weight of her parent’s illness and a pull to go home.

I listened empathetically and gave any leniency I could on due dates or missing classes. Each year, the number of students expressing stress, anxiety and fear seemed to double. I did some research and found the problem was more far-reaching than I could have imagined.

“This change isn’t just about supporting students psychologically but also about increasing their chances of succeeding in the classroom.”

Anxiety and depression are on the rise. A 2019 survey from the American College Health Association found that 60% of respondents reported overwhelming anxiety while 40% experienced severe depression to the point that it affected their ability to function.

Not surprisingly, COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem with 33% of students reporting their mental health has declined since the start of the pandemic. According to The Active Minds Student Mental Health 2020 survey of college students, 87% of respondents have reported experiencing high levels of stress or anxiety.

Looking at the data, I understood it wasn’t enough to work with students individually. I needed to reach entire classes.

First, I started by openly talking about mental health in my classrooms. This included sharing my own struggles with anxiety including my trip to the ER in my 20s with what I thought was a heart attack. It turned out to be a panic attack. I talked about managing my anxiety, overcoming the stigma of seeking professional support and prioritizing self-care. I soon had an inbox filled with student emails expressing gratitude and a sense of not being alone.

Next, I shared UTSA campus resources and normalized using them. I tweeted regularly to share the ongoing opportunities to practice self-care. More of my students have since reported using these services and taking care of their mental health.

This past year was the most challenging of my career. A lockdown, a sudden transition away from on-campus learning, the stress of an ongoing pandemic and the Texas snowpocalypse have taken a psychological and academic toll. As a result, this year, I added mental health as an excused absence on my fall 2021 course syllabi.

This change isn’t just about supporting students psychologically but also about increasing their chances of succeeding in the classroom. One study showed that students who accessed student health services were more than twice as likely to achieve their degrees and certificates.

By making this change, I hope to encourage students to acknowledge how they are feeling and find ways to care for themselves. I want them to share my belief that it is okay not to feel okay and that your mind matters in the same way your body matters. I want to show a trust in them and how they manage their well-being.

As we look forward to a new school year, the news isn’t all negative. In the Active Minds survey, nearly 75% of students reported feeling hopeful about achieving their school goals and future job prospects. We can all play a part in helping make these dreams come true.

My hope is that in five years students will automatically recognize that their mental health is health.

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