Dr. Kristen Lee, Ed.D., LICSW, is an internationally recognized, award-winning behavioral science clinician, researcher, leader, and educator from Boston, Massachusetts. As Behavioral Science Faculty at Northeastern University, her research and teaching interests include individual and organizational well-being and resilience, particularly for marginalized and underserved populations. She is the author of RESET: Make the Most of Your Stress, Winner of the Next Generation Indie Book Awards Motivational Book of 2015; best-selling Mentalligence: A New Psychology of Thinking-Learn What it Takes to be More Agile, Mindful and Connected in Today’s World, and Worth the Risk: How to Microdose Bravery to Grow Resilience, Connect More, and Offer Yourself to the World, a 2022 The Next Big Idea Book Club nominee and Nautilus Book Award Silver Medal Winner. She is a regular contributor for Psychology Today and Thrive Global. Dr. Kris’s work has been featured on NPR, Ted, Forbes Fast Company, and CBS radio.
Distinguished Harvard Professor Richard Elmore once said that the work of education is like trying to fix a plane while it’s in flight. Now the planes are low on fuel and dangerously close to the ground, with no runway in sight. Education is facing its Mayday Moment, with many leaders, students, faculty, and staff on the verge of aborting given the jarring turbulence. Retention and turnover are wreaking havoc. Smooth skies seem elusive.
When times feel so unsafe, what can institutions do?
This Mayday Moment is calling higher education to face a new institutional imperative: to respond properly to the escalating, excruciating mental health crisis at hand. One that isn’t brand new, that’s not just affecting students, and can’t be pinned entirely on the pandemic and its aftermath.
Campuses have long run on the tradition of ad hoc services for those who “need it” on the premise that therapy is “reserved for crisis”, or a small cadre of “unwell” or “really sick” students or “troubled” faculty who can’t handle the pressure. Historically, services have been scarce, and “over there”, the clunky in case of emergency pull handles that not everyone is sitting next to, or feels comfortable pulling.
We can’t ask students, faculty, and staff to politely wait their turn for relief, not in times of trauma and trepidation. We can’t ask that of education leaders either, piloting such jarring conditions. And even the most carefully plotted orientation programming, curated wellness programs, telehealth on demand, or well-stacked counseling programs aren’t enough to steady the plane and its passengers.
Research shows a clear need for action. The global and campus mental health crises were well-documented before 2020. The amplification brought on by the pandemic has heightened burnout, anxiety, and depression across the education landscape, with a staggering 1 in 3 students reporting significant anxiety.
Burnout is notorious among educators, who face disproportionate risks for emotional exhaustion, depletion, and working mechanically to the point of ill health. Demoralization, when educators cannot enact the values that motivate and sustain their work, can play a major role in disengagement and leaving altogether. The time has come to renegotiate the ways institutional culture helps or hinders its constituents to maneuver through traumatic times.
Like their students, leaders, faculty, and staff are grappling with how to respond properly to student mental health while attempting to maintain their own in the face of rigorous academia. A 2021 Healthy Minds Network study reveals that a strong majority of faculty believe that student mental health has “worsened” or “significantly worsened” during the COVID-19 pandemic. The same study revealed that 73% would welcome additional professional development in the topic of student mental health. 21% of faculty agreed that supporting students in mental and emotional distress has taken a toll on their own mental health. Close to half believe their institution should invest more in supporting faculty mental health and well-being. All this while The Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting have left an indelible mark, with staff shortages and unfilled positions leaving an already stretched system in peril.
Then there’s the tacit messages that leaders, faculty, and staff internalize: Mental health struggles happen to students. Maintain your professionalism. Attention must be entirely devoted to students. Call your EAP if you have a “problem”.
Investments towards better mental health must be made, but the shift from ad hoc services for a few to integration for all is essential given the turbulence at hand. Here are some recommendations for practice that help institutions can prioritize people, working to create a help-seeking and help-giving culture, in which needing help is normalized:
- Prioritize psychological safety as a through line. Psychological safety, a sense of being able to be oneself and share one’s identities and perspectives without being punished, scrutinized, is today’s educational imperative. Superficial rhetoric won’t cut it given the deep wounds at hand. Especially when it comes to creating the conditions where it becomes increasingly safe to voice mental health concerns. Even with growing comfort over mental health disclosure, the greatest barrier to persistence amongst students is fear of stigma, shame, and discrimination. And yet many students seem to be leading the way in terms of candor and courage, while taboos for educational leaders, faculty, and staff continue to deter open dialogue.
- Create the conditions for interpersonal risk-taking and peer support. The construct of psychological safety is grounded in seminal work by Schein and Bennis, who initially defined it as the extent to which individuals feel secure and confident in ability to manage change. Scholars have extended psychological safety as involving a shared belief as to whether it is safe to engage in interpersonal risk-taking. Environments that work to build conditions of psychological safety are more likely to demonstrate improved communication, knowledge sharing, voice and learning behavior. They also spur on improved performance, innovation, creativity.
- Acknowledge students aren’t the only ones in mental health peril. Leaders, faculty and staff fear losing professional face, and all its potential consequences when they reveal the truth of their struggles. Although antiquated, the pressure on educators to remain untouchable in the face of crisis remains the norm, even while reeling and stricken with the gnawing feeling “I’m not (doing) enough”, through gritted teeth and heroic exertion. We can’t expect education systems to be healthy if there’s a blatant disregard for the well-being of those tending students.
- Strive for candid conversations. Asking for help and acknowledging distress is a form of interpersonal risk-taking that can create vulnerability, but also help spark candid connection, and become a protective force within an educational ecosystem. Institutions can take the helm and make it safer to struggle and recover. This can’t come solely from the mouths of counseling staff or wellness programs, but through policies and practices that back up a consistent through line of conscious caring. In short, institutions can’t expect its people to seek help if the right help isn’t given, if the risks of doing so seem greater than the benefits, or if the conditions of studying and working are inhumane.
- Embody human reverence. Commit to relentlessly communicating a message of shared humanity and reverence for the sacred and arduous work of education. Demonstrate respect for identities and competencies. Relish progress and celebrate strengths. Ask constituents “what would mean a lot to you?”. Curate resources for students, leaders, faculty, and staff that are research backed. Be flexible. Seek to create shared understanding and commitment to cause. Strive for empathy, not judgment or punitive measures. Focus on creating a sense of belonging, appreciating someone’s valuable contributions to the community. Call out outdated practices, especially those that oppress, marginalize, and discriminate against non-dominant identities. Show interest in one another, demonstrate positive intentions backed by action. Embrace, see, welcome, revere varied identities. Move from tolerance, to acceptance, to reverence. Reverence is key to creating a through line of psychological safety.
Mayday Moments can create collective panic, but they can also ignite collective action. Fixing planes in flight is delicate, but critical work. Institutions can prioritize this new imperative to help its students, and all those supporting them to stay and do well.