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by Carrie Chassels, Vice-Provost, Student Affairs, University of Guelph

As a later-career educator and Student Affairs leader with more than 25 years’ experience in diverse Canadian contexts that include rural and urban K-12 schools, a large metropolitan research-intensive university in Ontario, a small comprehensive special purpose teaching-focused university in British Columbia, and a mid-size comprehensive teaching- and research-focused university in Ontario, one question keeps taking up space in my mind: Is mental health the great disruptor of the ivory tower?

Few members of today’s university communities lack awareness of the increasing mental health crisis taking hold on our campuses and extending into our broader communities. While much recent attention has focused on the mental health of students, there is increasing awareness that faculty, staff, and administrators are also experiencing increasingly acute mental health challenges. Educators have long argued that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. It’s within this inter-dependent environment that mental health concerns are becoming more prevalent in universities across Canada.

In response to the rise of mental health issues among students, universities have increased the number of counselling and other mental health services available on campus and after hours via community collaborations and digital platforms. For faculty and staff, employee assistance programs are providing a range of new mental health supports, including counselling services developed specifically for senior administrators.

While I have no doubt that the many new mental health resources for students and employees are necessary and are having a positive impact on the well-being, resiliency, persistence, and productivity of those who access them, I’m deeply concerned that this additive mental health intervention approach is insufficient, unsustainable, and possibly misguided as it doesn’t address underlying institutional conditions that give rise to stress, anxiety, and depression. Students have told us for years that their workload is unhealthy and needs to be addressed. Faculty have told us for years that their workload is unhealthy and needs to be addressed. But what efforts have we made to truly understand the workload of today’s students and faculty? And what do we know of the relationship between student and faculty workload, and the impact of their workload on the mental health of support staff and administrators?

Students are very clear when they plead with faculty and university administrators to address their workload related to the evaluation of their course learning. Students tell us that the increased focus on time-intensive group assignments, blended in-class and online course delivery, weekly assignments, and formal examinations causes them to experience periods of extreme stress and anxiety. Relatedly, increased numbers of students make connections between peak periods of intense workload and their personal struggles with depression, the ever more prevalent “imposter syndrome”, and suicidal ideation born out of a sense of futility and feelings that they can’t rise to meet the high expectations of others and themselves.

For more than 50 years, faculty have expressed longstanding concerns regarding class size, research demands, and time-intensive service to the University and the broader community. What’s new is the increased workload related to email communication with students and colleagues, blended course delivery, and technology-assisted research collaboration. Additionally, students are increasingly comfortable sharing their personal traumas and mental health concerns with faculty and there is little understanding of the emotional toll this has on faculty well-being.

Little research is available to help us understand the mental health impacts of technology in the university context. Those of us who attended university during the pre-computer days of library reference searches using index cards, and essays printed using typewriters and correction tape, will no doubt recall course syllabi with a mostly manageable workload of two or three course evaluation assignments and a final exam. If we had cause to meet with a professor, we did so face-to-face during their specified office hours which were typically one or two hours per week for each course they taught. Our time commitment for class attendance was limited to scheduled in-person lectures and seminars, and was predictable and consistent for students and faculty. Today, blended in-person and online course designs can more than double a course’s time commitment. Dialogue that for previous generations took place during class now extends well beyond class time and in many cases becomes a daily activity. Furthermore, technology-assisted access to thousands of on-line research resources, and the ease of editing computer generated text have gradually increased our expectations in terms of the caliber and quantity of work that students submit for evaluation, and the caliber of evaluative feedback that faculty provide. Additionally, it seems that more and more professors have introduced weekly assignments to provide ongoing formative input intended to foster student success and/or to provide extrinsic motivation for students to attend class regularly. Another seemingly important but under-studied element of student-faculty relations and workload is the expectation of students that they can communicate with their professors via email, digital course platforms, and social media at any time and they will receive a prompt reply. Just as we are learning more about the mental health impacts of social media and immediate versus delayed “likes” or other forms of response, so too do students ‘read into’ the time it takes for faculty to reply to their digital correspondence, and the substance of the replies they receive.

I have drawn attention to only a few aspects of university life that have changed significantly over the past 20 years. As we pause to contemplate that rising mental health concerns may have pushed universities to the precipice of disruption, it’s important to recognize the need for bold and courageous leadership that will embrace this disruption as an opportunity to transform the university experience for students and employees. Student Affairs professionals can play a crucial role by asking difficult questions that force a fulsome examination of institutional structures that might be contributing to the growing mental health crisis on university campuses. Questions about student and faculty workload, for example, may prove helpful in re-thinking post-secondary pedagogy, learning, and assessment. The answers may inform significant structural and systemic changes that address the root causes of stress, anxiety, depression, burnout and dropout that are beginning to all too often characterize the university experience.

I am encouraged by the recent revitalization of the World Health Organization’s Health-Promoting Universities movement that began with the Ottawa Charter (1986), saw continued commitments expressed through the Bangkok and Edmonton Charters (2005), and today has inspired 18 Canadian college and university signatories to the Okanagan Charter (2015) that have agreed to “embed health into all aspects of campus culture, across the administration, operations and academic mandates.”  For Student Affairs professionals, and the senior administrators who lead them, there is a question of “how?”. Given that a vision of universities as health-promoting institutions has been the subject of discussion and signed commitments for more than 30 years, how can Student Affairs professionals encourage and contribute to bold and courageous conversations that lead to structural and systemic change?  Through our SA-exchange dialogue, I hope that we can share promising practices as we work together to transform our institutions into genuinely health-promoting universities where everyone learns, works and thrives in environments characterized by healthy challenges and time to reflect and recharge.




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  • Melissa Warden Black

    I loved your article, Carrie, and all through it I was saying ‘yes!’ in my head. Our world today is very different from 20 years ago, and the reality is that mental illness is a reality, and our traditional systems and go-to ways of doing things have not caught up to healthier ways of living.

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