Including Faculty in the Mental Health Solution


A joint mental health task force assembled by the University of Minnesota’s Provost and the Faculty Consultative Committee is set to make recommendations on how instructors can take a more proactive, responsive and supportive role in students’ mental health.

The committee wants to help faculty and the rest of the community play a larger role alongside clinical professionals in the mental health conversation, said Joe Shultz, deputy chief of staff for the Provost’s Office. Shultz helped assemble the task force in 2016 when it was charged.

This spring the task force’s recommendations will be given to the Provost’s Office and the Faculty Consultative Committee and distributed to faculty and student groups for comment.

Three of the five recommendations will focus on preventing problems of mental health in the classroom, not just responding to issues and crises as they arise. The goal is to go beyond policy, which “sets the minimum bar” for how much instructors do for students’ mental health, said Professor Sue Wick, who co-chairs the task force with Gary Christenson, chief medical officer of Boynton Health.

Wick said she still sees some gaps in accommodation policies where some mental health issues are still not addressed. She said one such gap was improved last year when issues of mental health were added to the list of excused absences.

“Besides doing what you have to, how about being proactive and creating a climate of mutual respect and trust and support?” Wick said. She wants instructors to maintain academic rigor while making the classroom “more humane, more accepting of all kinds of diversity including mental health diversity.” In other words, making classrooms “basically a more pleasant place to dig in and do some work,” she said.

Wick said the task force will recommend opportunities for faculty to get training in addressing different learning styles or responding to students with mental health problems. “We really want to get more and more instructors, anybody who interacts with students in a learning situation to get those kinds of professional development opportunities under their belt.”

Shultz agreed the goal is to bolster instructors’ abilities to address student mental health beyond relying on Boynton Health and Student Counseling Services, which provide students much-needed resources for mental health.

“You definitely want to have those experts and those clinicians, people with M.D.’s and other counseling degrees,” Shultz said. “But the danger is it’s easy for the rest of us to think, ‘Oh, well that’s their problem and so I don’t have any ownership for that.’”