Stealing Back Joy: A Renewed Focus on Student Mental Health

04 Nov 2021 12:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

by Susan Nolan, STP President

Stealing Back Joy: A Renewed Focus on Student Mental Health

“How COVID-19 Stole ‘Children’s Joy,’ a recent headline offered. And we’ve all heard stories of stolen joy. The student who gave up their waning-summer weekend at the shore in an overcrowded shared rental because a sibling is immunocompromised. The ones who struggle to maintain fitness and social networks now that the indoor volleyball habit seems, well, treacherous. Or the ones who are saddened that limited tickets to indoor commencement exercises means they can’t include the family cheering squad they always imagined.

But for some students, “stolen joy” may represent more than just a sad moment. Rising rates of mental illness among our secondary and higher education students have long been a concern. But these trends are even more concerning during the pandemic. This is true broadly; about half of university students in the U.S. report moderate-to-severe stress and about 25% report that they have considered suicide. Similar patterns have been reported around the world. These trends are even more pronounced for historically marginalized groups. In the U.S., for example, university students who are American Indian or Black, are particularly at risk for psychological disorders, and although Asian American students do not seem to be at higher risk for mental illness, they do seem to be less likely than their peers to seek treatment. In other examples, university students from lower castes in India are at higher risk, as are indigenous students in Canada.

There may be a silver lining, though. I suspect – and I’m not alone in my suspicion – that the pandemic has made many more people aware of the acute need for accessible psychological interventions and perhaps even reduced the stigma associated with seeking mental healthcare. Whether because rates of mental illness are higher or because students are more open to treatment, rates of help-seeking at university counseling centers are higher than ever.

With that preamble, I want to showcase one important resource, published recently by the U.S. Department of Education and the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. Titled Supporting Child and Student Social, Emotional, Behavioral, and Mental Health Needs, this comprehensive report outlines seven challenges related to offering mental health support – as well as seven recommendations – across all levels of education, including secondary and higher education. Admittedly, this is a U.S.-centric report; however, existing research suggests that the conclusions may be relevant at least in some international contexts.

The challenges include: 1) disparities, including based on race, in both vulnerabilities and access to treatment; 2) the enduring obstacle that is stigma; 3) a lack of (or lack of awareness of) evidence-based interventions; 4) the unfortunate “silo-ing” of mental healthcare; 5) a lack of funding and relevant policies; 6) limited mental-health resources in school settings; and 7) limited data to drive decision-making. The report’s recommendations directly address these challenges and offer a blueprint to identifying and addressing mental health in our students, as well as to increasing resources, developing policy, and (hopefully!) reducing stigma.

As psychology educators, we are uniquely positioned to forward these goals. Many of us are trained as clinicians. Many of us are not. Regardless, our training situates us to understand human emotions, behavior, and/or cognitions. And, as STP members, we all love to teach and support students! We can all forward an agenda, similar to the one in this report, in our own classrooms, programs, and institutions. Or even with a single student. My own institution’s slogan is Hazard Zet Forward, which loosely translates to “whatever the obstacles, keep on fighting.” In the context of stealing back our student’s joy, it’s a fitting slogan. Hazard Zet Forward.

The latest introduction in my ongoing series of “meet the EC” features Kristin Whitlock, our new Vice President for Programming. Kristin has been active within STP and other psychology professional organizations for quite some time, and we’re excited for her to bring her talents and experiences within the secondary school psychology teaching world to the STP Executive Committee. Among (many, many) other contributions, Kristin has served as a committee chair for the development of APA’s National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula and as a steering committee member for the APA National Summit for High School Psychology. In recognition of her work on behalf of psychology instructors, Kristin was awarded one of just two STP presidential citations in 2020. Below, Kristin writes about her position and what she most values about STP. As always, check out STP’s Get Involved page to see where you might fit within our organization!

What would you like STP members to know about your position?

STP programming is among the most visible of STP initiatives.  For many instructors it is the place where many first realize the existence of our organization. Currently there are nine directors and programming chairs working year-round planning for the many conferences, preconferences, and teaching institutes available to STP members. Along with STP’s own Annual Conference on Teaching (ACT) we also team up to provide teaching programming with other organizations, such as the Society for Research on Child Development and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. STP’s presence is also felt at regional and international conferences, as well as at the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Sciences annual conferences.  I’m excited to be a part of this effort and look forward to supporting STP and the Programming Division.  Recent years have brought new challenges to conference planning, and I look forward to the future as we continue to find ways to make what we offer more accessible to more psychology instructors.

What do you most value about STP?

It’s hard for me to pick just one thing I value about STP. I am amazed at the incredible resources available for teachers of psychology across all levels of instruction. STP is like a safety net for those instructors new to the classroom, as well as seasoned veterans. I always come away from STP events energized by what I learn and inspired by the incredible members of our community.

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