A campus of compassion: Addressing mental health concerns in the classroom

According to a recent College Council (CC) poll attached to the weekly “State of CC” email, 30 percent of student responders do not know who to contact for assistance if they experience mental health issues during the semester. This lack of clear policy and direction mandates that the College place physical and mental health on the same footing to support the wellbeing of its students.
To address this apparent incongruity, the College has a responsibility to clarify how to get help when mental health issues impact a student’s ability to fulfill his or her academic obligations. We encourage the Dean’s Office to start by sending out an all-campus email outlining where to go for help and which accommodations are available when a mental health issue arises and impedes academic performance.

In addition, we believe that another way to legitimize mental illness on campus is to explicitly address it in course syllabi. While the majority of syllabi mention some allowance for sick days or accommodations for physical injuries like concussions, few syllabi reference policies for mental health issues. We believe syllabi containing phrases like “no extensions for any reason” provide no space for compassion and understanding while doing little to bolster the College’s academic community.

Furthermore, we are concerned that such syllabi warnings — absent an explicit accommodation for mental illness — can mislead students as to the accommodations they are entitled to under the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to the College’s website, under the Act, the “College is required to provide reasonable accommodations to insure[sic] equal access to our offerings for students with documented disabilities as long as the accommodations do not fundamentally alter the integrity of any course or program of study.” Disabilities are mental, not just physical. An accommodation for mental illness on course syllabi will work twofold. First, it will legitimize mental illness in a culture in which it is already stigmatized and second, it will allow for an open dialogue between students and professors and improve the learning environment at the College.

While the College cannot mandate what professors include on their syllabi, the administration can send an all-faculty email at the start of every semester explaining why such a syllabi inclusion would enhance the wellbeing of the student body. Such an email might suggest a template for what this syllabi inclusion might look like and articulate strong support for the addition of mental health challenges as excused illnesses.While it is likely that not all professors will feel comfortable including a mental health stipulation in their syllabi, those who do not should think about mentioning the issue on the first day of class each semester when discussing general housekeeping for the course.

In the past, the administration took a similar approach when it implored professors to include a reference to the honor code in their syllabi. Now, mentions of academic honesty are nearly ubiquitous, either on syllabi or verbally during the first class meeting. The administration should act in the interest of all students with mental illnesses and make a case for accommodations on syllabi. Sending a notice to all students about resources for mental illness and suggesting a mental health statement for professors to include on syllabi are two concrete steps that the administration should take. However, we hope that professors and the Dean’s Office will consider even more ways to bring mental health challenges out of the shadows and build more functional and empathetic relationships with students.

  • HaroldAMaio

    I note the Passive Voice in your article, mental illness “is stigmatized”.
    Who taught you to say that? Are you aware it is you saying that? Are you aware of the harm you personally do in saying that?

  • student

    Phrases such as “already stigmatized” do little to improve campus culture. As HaroldAMaio noted, if you repeat the word “stigma” enough, you do not eradicate the problem. You pass it on. Phrases like “mental health issues” have the same overall effect of weakening and victimizing those who struggle, especially when pinned against the all-imperative “fulfilling of academic obligations.” The language used in the article is not compassionate.

    You end the article by asking the Deans office and professors to “bring mental health challenges out of the darkness.” Have you attended any of the many Student-run events about mental health lately? On Claiming Williams Day (and the evening before), multiple events were put on by students and health center staff that had excellent turn-out and generated discussions/thought. It is a shame you did not write/research any of that.