Why This Professor Cares about Student Mental Health

Ten to 15 students a day would come around to the Muller Faculty Center office of Derek Adams to discuss African American literature and ask questions about assignments. Then the Covid-19 pandemic forced Ithaca College classes online and turned the professor’s office hours into Zoom calls as well. Only a couple students a week showed up after office hours went virtual.

Adams regretted the lost mentoring time, but he had an even greater concern: his students’ mental health. A professor who cares deeply about student wellbeing, Adams uses office hours to keep an eye on how his students are doing.

“I don’t think it takes a license to actively listen, or to be open minded and listen to what somebody has to share,” said Adams, an associate professor of English who came to Ithaca College in 2012. “That’s something we should all be able to do. That’s just a very human thing that we do.”

Professors can often be the first to notice if a student is struggling with their mental health. On the first day of classes, Adams addresses students with three ice-breaker questions that demonstrate how he incorporates their wellbeing as a priority in his teaching: What is something you want to take from the class? What is something you’re willing to give to it? What is something we should know about you to get to a place where we can do the work that we need to do?

From there, Adams strives to create a classroom community with strong student connections that he believes benefits their mental health. For example, he requires students to learn each other’s names and encourages them to address each other as such in classroom discussions.

“I think, the better the state [my mental health] is in, the more I retain from what my students share with me, the more I retain from what I’m reading and what I’m conveying, the better I’m able to make connections between things,” Adams said. “And so, I just imagined that if that was true for me, it would be true for students as well, so I wanted to make that a core part of my pedagogy.”

A caring community in which students are allowed to feel vulnerable facilitates a greater understanding of literature, Adams believes. “I don’t know that we will ever get to the level of instruction and transmission of knowledge and the sharing of information that we want to get to without at least acknowledging that mental health is a core part of our experience,” he said.

But after the pandemic hit, Adams’s classroom community became more difficult to build in a Zoom gathering. The casual chatter before and after class—about things in the news, or popular culture—largely disappeared. “There’s just something about being in person that I think makes students feel more free to share those things,” he said. “Without those, it was harder to establish that kind of bond with my students.”

In response, Adams tried out some new ideas to rebuild his classroom community. He asked his students to address a letter to someone they trusted and cared about, exploring current events and how they felt about them. As they shared their letters with the Zoom class, Adams felt a better connection to his students and to the state of their mental health.

“Just giving students the platform to do that helped cultivate that sense of community that I’ve been able to hit on in my in-person classes for so many years,” Adams said. “I was learning to do this for the first time online.”

Adams also made clear that he is sensitive to obstacles in online learning and has adjusted expectations accordingly. He reminds students to prioritize their well-being and gives them pep talks. “Look at what you’re doing right now,” he tells his students. “How incredible is it that, in the middle of the pandemic, you can pick yourself up?”

Adams understands that many students struggle to be open with their professors, wary to admit they are having trouble keeping up. He believes that’s why it is essential for professors to pay attention to their students’ mental health. Although he is not a clinician, he can offer an empathetic ear. And, when he sees a cause for greater concern, he refers students to other resources such as Ithaca College’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

CAPS Director Brian Petersen agreed that everyone on campus can help improve the mental health climate.

“Mental health support for students is the responsibility of the entire campus community and Ithaca College is committed to creating a campus-wide culture that is focused on mental wellness,” Petersen explained.

Petersen believes that faculty members should be formally trained to recognize warning signs for distress and even suicide. Currently they are provided with a resource guide for directing students to support services on and off campus.

 “Our goal is to help faculty feel comfortable with this kind of intervention,” said Petersen. “We also talk with faculty about boundaries and how to be helpful without being too invested or psychologically or emotionally enmeshed with the student.”

Adams is looking forward to seeing students in his daily office hours again. But he doesn’t want to forget the lessons he’s learned about community building during the pandemic  “Whatever happens from this point forward, I would like there to be a continued focus—a renewed focus—on mental health and well being,” he said.

—By Lorelei Horrell

Lorelei Horrell, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a second year Ithaca College student with a Writing major and double minor in Sociology and English.