Editor’s Note: This article talks about mental health and suicide, and could be triggering for some individuals. If you or someone you know is in crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can help. To speak with someone, dial 988.
With many college students enjoying spring break this week, I can’t help thinking how desperately they need this time to recharge their mental health. It’s been a tough year, especially at NC State University, where last month the administration released sweeping mental health recommendations in response to a cluster of student suicides.
The deaths of 10 students since September 2022, five by suicide, would be heartwrenching for anyone. But as a parent of a recent graduate of the NC State College of Engineering, I have followed the news with sadness and some frustration. Many students are still experiencing the needless stress and mental anguish that made my daughter’s experience difficult – or “hellish” as she describes it.
A Personal Take on Mental Health
That is why I applaud the scope and thoroughness of NC State’s response to the recent mental health crisis. The report from the university’s Mental Health Task Force, released in February, describes the ongoing student mental health crisis and recommends many common-sense efforts to address it. Among the many suggestions in the 89-page report are three ideas worth exploring: prohibiting assignments due on weekends, relaxing in-person attendance policies, and creating a Dean of Students to advocate for the student body.
I can’t help but wonder how different my daughter’s experience would have been if these measures had been in place five years ago. Consider these examples from her four years at State:
It used to be that assignments were handed in during class, and students had at least one weekend day to relax and destress. But today, assignments are commonly due at midnight on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. My daughter frequently left Saturday afternoon events with her friends to go back to the library to work, or she had to skip weekend social events entirely. Studies have shown the health benefits of time to unplug and destress, but because assignments are due every day, many students just don’t get that time.
During the Fall 2020 semester, when COVID was rampaging through the student body, most of my daughter’s professors moved to remote instruction – all except for one. This engineering professor demanded the students attend in-person classes, telling them that if they were worried about getting sick, they should drop his class. Because the required course was offered only once a year, dropping it would mean delaying graduation for a year – not something any of the students wanted to do. A flexible attendance policy would have made it possible for my daughter to come home, instead of remaining isolated and alone in her dorm until the administration closed the campus for everyone.
Dean of Students
One of the most pernicious aspects of my daughter’s time at State was the absurdly frequent microaggressions, toward her and her fellow women engineering students. During one class, a young woman asked a question, and the professor responded not with the answer, but by berating the student for wasting the class’s time with such a ridiculous question. Many of the students in the 70-person class – including my daughter – were appalled at the man’s response. They reported the incident to the department head, but a Dean of Students would have provided an additional avenue to report the egregious behavior.
Make Campuses More Like Workplaces
All three of these suggested policy changes have parallels in the business world. Managers must respect employees’ time away from work, and most employers encourage a healthy work-life balance. Inclusive workplaces focus on performance, not whether employees are physically present for a certain set of hours, and allow flexible schedules and remote work. Microaggressions and inappropriate behavior from team leaders are immediately reported to HR and remedial action is taken. Even the absurdly common homophobic language my daughter had to put up with from her fellow students isn’t tolerated in the modern workplace.
I have no problem with students working hard at academically challenging programs. It’s the arbitrary policies and microaggressions that I take issue with. If universities are serious about increasing diversity in STEM industries, they need to make classrooms and labs more welcoming to people with underrepresented identities. Eliminating toxic behavior and making classrooms more inclusive would also lower the stress levels and improve the mental health of marginalized students.
Despite the challenges she faced, my child was fortunate to have support from her fellow women engineering students, friends at the LGBTQ Pride Center, mentors through the Women in Science & Engineering program, and a private mental health practitioner. At both companies she’s worked at since graduation, my daughter has found supportive mentors, collaborative colleagues, and acceptance for who she is and what she can do.
The Student Mental Health Crisis is Widespread
Universities across the country are grappling with the student mental health crisis. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college and university students, with a national rate of roughly seven deaths per 100,000 people. Many more young people report suicidal thoughts and attempt suicide. Students with marginalized identities are especially at risk of suicide, with LGBTQ+ youth reporting suicidal thoughts or behaviors four times more often than their peers.
More and more business leaders are recognizing the importance of mental health and the damage that constant stress can cause. All institutions of higher learning should follow the example of these forward-thinking organizations and enact policies to protect the mental health of everyone on campus – from staff to students.
NC State has added more mental health clinicians on campus, and more actions recommended by the Mental Health Task Force will be coming soon. In addition to completing the changes already planned, staff must also gain buy-in throughout the campus – even from tenured professors and students. Changing attitudes about mental health, stress, and appropriate classroom behavior won’t be easy, but the incentives are high and, as we have seen, the risks can be tragic.
People are finally talking about mental health on campus and the toll that academic pressure and stress takes on our young people. This is a good thing. What is even better, is that NC State and other universities are taking concrete steps to make the college experience safer for students.
Amber Keister is a Content Strategist at The Diversity Movement. She has spent more than 20 years as a journalist for publications throughout the South. Connect with her on Linkedin.