Mental Health Awareness and Care in Higher Education
Published by: Lindsey Downs | 7/21/2022
Today I’m thankful to welcome, again, Kara Monroe, President and Founder of Monarch Strategies LLC to continue her Frontiers series on leadership in higher education digital learning.
This post, a reflection on mental health, especially as it pertains to caring for ourselves when facing mental health challenges, is the fifth in this series. Don’t forget to check out the previous posts: “Shifting from Covid-normal to New Normal,” “The ‘New Normal’ and Reflections on Accessibility,” “Before and After Moments,” and “It’s Not All Bad.”
A special thank you to Kara for sharing her story this week and for the advice she includes in the post.
Enjoy the read,
Lindsey Downs, WCET
Please note that this article discusses topics that may be triggers for some readers. Please take care of yourself and read this only if you are able to do so in a safe environment. Put your self-care first.
My dad had a stroke in March of 2017. About a week after my dad’s stroke, I started feeling a tingling sensation on the right side of my face. It would come and go so I did my best to simply ignore it. I had my first panic attack about a month after dad’s stroke. It was also becoming hard to ignore the tingling sensation in my face, which also sometimes extended down my right side to my fingertips. I made an appointment with my doctor and she diagnosed me with mild anxiety and a panic disorder. She prescribed medication, which helped alleviate the symptoms, but also encouraged me to work with a therapist. I began therapy about two weeks later and have been talking with a therapist regularly ever since.
This is a simple story – yet it is one that many leaders in higher education do not feel comfortable sharing. Every person has to live their own life and make their own decisions about what information they disclose and in what circumstances. I kept my struggles with anxiety and panic quiet within my family – not wanting to worry my dad who needed to focus on his own recovery at the time.
Why do I share this with you today? First, it’s to make sure you know that you aren’t alone if you also have a mental health disorder/diagnosis. Second, it’s to do my tiny part in destigmatizing conversations about mental health. I’ve seen first hand the dangers of the judgment surrounding conversations about practicing self care for mental health. A supervisor once told me that I should be careful talking about my mental health and seeing a therapist because others might see me as weak. While I see acceptance, authenticity, and honesty as strengths, that supervisor didn’t and still doesn’t. That leader is not alone. According to the winter 2021 Health Minds survey, 45% of students surveyed nationally agree with the statement “Most people would think less of someone who had received mental health treatment.”
I am not alone in struggling with my mental health. While my battle is easily managed with medication and therapy, many others face far more challenging situations than mine. Even before COVID, institutions were taking a serious look at the mental health needs of their students – and in some cases the mental health of their faculty and staff. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals aged 10 – 14 and aged 25 – 34 and it is the third leading cause of death among individuals aged 15 – 24. If you work with students – from elementary aged to the average adult age student population in community colleges, suicide is a very real issue that needs to be talked about on campus. According to the winter 2021 Healthy Minds survey, 23% of students nationally reported non-suicidal self-injury in the past year and 13% reported suicidal ideation. The Healthy Minds survey does skew to a generally younger student age and the degree program data shows that community college students are likely underrepresented in the survey data.
The mental health and wellbeing of faculty and staff is at just as critical a point as that of students. Lyra Health recently published their 2022 State of Workforce Mental Health Report which opens with 7 insights – a few of which I’ve chosen to highlight or elaborate on here:
As leaders, we must build institutions where mental wellbeing is paramount. Most importantly, emotional safety must be an expectation. In a vast oversimplification of the research of Dr. Stephen Porges, when humans sense a threat, our nervous system’s first defense mechanism is fight or flight. We cannot interact effectively with others when we sense any sort of threat – including emotional threat.
I have tried to end the articles in this series with some actionable items. I’ve divided the actions associated with this article into two areas – personal actions and institutional actions.
The following actions may require personal effort on your part. Additionally, if you are in a position of power or have leadership authority at your institution, you may be able to take specific action on these elements immediately. If not, advocate in spaces where you can keep these issues top of mind within your organization.