What student mental heath initiatives get wrong

Elizabeth Meade considers what needs to change to see improvement

Elizabeth Meade
21st March 2021
Image: unkle_sam on Flickr and Wikimedia Commons, edited by Joe Molander
Student mental health is an issue of ever-rising importance to our society. There has been increased awareness of the concept of mental health and the issues surrounding it and student advocacy for better handling of the subject. Many educational institutions have begun initiatives in the past decade that purport to address this topic. However, most of these initiatives don’t handle the issues effectively.

A lot of universities have a mental health awareness week or another event where students can participate in relaxing activities. While this is sometimes a nice break, these events rarely focus on long-term strategies for reducing stress. In an ideal student wellness week, it would be more effective to host workshops on journaling, time management and how to use common organizational tools. These skills have been shown to help students improve their stress levels and academic performance over the long term.

Universities also emphasize the importance of taking a break from work, but offer students limited opportunities to do so. Even during enrichment weeks, professors often continue to post content, require students to attend live teaching sessions and set deadlines. With strict requirements for a Personal Extenuating Circumstances (PEC) form, extension or other alteration in work time or deadlines, taking time off for health purposes is all but discouraged. This isn’t even to mention that high attendance requirements for international students put pressure on them to show up to lectures, even when ill. If universities were serious about allowing students time off, none of this would be the case. They would enforce enrichment week breaks across courses, loosen PEC requirements for urgent situations, and hold everyone to the regular rules for attendance.

Another issue facing student mental health is the state of university mental health services. While these services have undoubtedly been helpful to myself and others, they aren’t always effective. Many students do not receive timely delivery of the services offered, and services for more serious or complex situations are lacking. If universities put more time, effort and money into these services and took their delivery more seriously, this would probably be less of an issue.

What’s more, outside of particular initiatives, student mental health is rarely addressed as more than a marketing term on a regular basis. While professors and personal tutors often attempt to connect with students during a tough time, this still seems like an anomaly. The widespread mental health problems in academia are rarely, if ever, discussed. Chemistry students, for instance, are prepared for industry with raw knowledge, which is of course important. However, they are given little to no preparation for the mental, social and emotional demands of such a career. The reality of the scientific world involves a lot of long hours, difficult work and strict deadlines. An approach to teaching that largely involves throwing a lot of content and assignments at students without context isn’t sufficient. It’s not surprising that many students decide to leave STEM careers due to this environment, no matter how much people try to inspire them. Offering more information about health for researchers would be helpful, even in the form of a few optional events or resources on Canvas.

If universities want to do something about student mental health, they must recognize this effort for the long term, nuanced commitment that it is. Ultimately, they must dedicate time, money and energy to addressing the issue in all areas rather, than as a short term promotion.

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AUTHOR: Elizabeth Meade
Science sub-ed and Chemistry major. Avid reader. Chaos theorist. Amateur batrachologist and historian. Rock fan. Likes cybersecurity and cooking.

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