By Lisa Chinn Marvashti-UMW
“For what it’s worth, I’m really stressed out.”
The email from a fellow faculty member prompted University of Mary Washington Center for Teaching Director Victoria Russell to print it out and carry it in her planner – and in her mind – for nearly a year.
It served as a reminder of her plans with colleagues to address a growing concern in college classrooms – the challenge of meeting increasing student mental health needs while maintaining meaningful, rigorous coursework. Those plans sprang to life earlier this month with a keynote address and workshop by sought-after psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh, author of Mind Over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge.
Those last two words – “compassionate challenge” – are the key to promoting youth mental wellness on campus, said Cavanagh, a Simmons University psychology professor and senior associate director for teaching and learning.
“As instructors, we can support and encourage student mental health through pedagogies of care,” she sent in materials ahead of her talk. “Pedagogies of care involve high-touch practices like frequent communication, flexibility, inclusive teaching practices, learning new technologies and techniques, and being enthusiastic and passionate.”
Recent stressors – the COVID-19 pandemic, political polarization, racial tensions, environmental concerns and more – have led to a liminal moment in higher education, she told the UMW group, leaving students dealing with difficult pasts, uncertain presents and precarious futures. Meanwhile, faculty members find themselves looking for ways to accommodate individual emotional needs and deliver engaging curricula, while also preserving the joy they find in their own work.
“I think that interacting with each other is so much harder than it was before,” said Professor of Sociology Leslie Martin, among faculty and staff from an array of departments and offices across the University attending the event in the Cedric Rucker University Center.
Cavanagh heard similar sentiments as she traveled the country post-pandemic to write Mind Over Monsters, tapping into the topic of youth mental health with students, clinicians and educators. At UMW, she shared her research, citing real-life experiences, theories and resources, and encouraging participants to exchange ideas.
Mary Washington Head Athletic Trainer Beth Druvenga stressed goal-setting – the theme of Cavanagh’s afternoon workshop – as a way to engage students and boost confidence. “Looking into student goals on the front end of the semester could give professors insight into their motivation,” Druvenga said of the tact she employs on the field. “That would also give them the opportunity to check and see if they’re meeting their goals or what they need to do differently.”
Such strategies – encouraging challenge, sparking energy, building inclusivity – strengthen learning environments said Cavanagh, who writes for The Chronicle of Higher Education and blogs for Psychology Today.
“Faculty can do the most for students by being purposeful in our classroom designs and supporting students to manage what may feel uncomfortable,” said Russell, who hopes to bring more opportunities for exploring mental health concerns to the UMW community.
Key to the concept of being intentional is something Cavanagh calls “flexibility with guardrails.” Juxtaposing clear expectations with deadlines and assessments tailored to personal needs can help create a sense of security.
“I think that students need compassion, and they also need a challenge,” she said. “Compassion has to come first.”
UMW offers 24/7 mental health services to students through TimelyCare and to faculty and staff through the Employee Assistance Program. In addition, the University supports student-athlete mental health through the Eagles Let’s Talk program.