Well-being in the Curriculum: What Faculty Can Do to Address the Mental Health of Our Students

Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education, Sep 2018

By Laura D. Valtin, Mindy McWilliams, and David Ebenbach, Published on 09/01/18

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Well-being in the Curriculum: What Faculty Can Do to Address the Mental Health of Our Students

Well-being in the Curriculum: W hat Faculty Can Do to Address the Mental Health of Our Students Laura D. Valtin 0 0 Valtin , Laura D.; McWilliams, Mindy; and Ebenbach , David (2018) "Well-being in the Curriculum: What Faculty Can Do to Address the Mental Health of Our Students," Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education: Vol. 54 , Article 8. Available at: https://epublications.marquette.edu/conversations/vol54/iss1/8 Follow this and additional works at; https; //epublications; marquette; edu/conversations In her Synaptic Transmission course, Kathy Maguire-Zeiss (neuro science) examines the effect of sleep deprivation on the brain, body, and resulting functioning. © Can Stock Photo / Andreus Well-being in the Curriculum What Faculty Can Do to Address the Mental Health of Our Students By Laura D. Valtin, Mindy McWilliams, and David Ebenbach Today’s college students are ties, where we strive for cura facing mental health chal- personalis in our interactions lenges at an alarming rate. Ac- with students. However, the cording to the American idea of translating this to the College Health Association’s classroom – giving meaning2017 National College Health ful attention to the wide range Assessment, over half of all of academic, social, physical, college students reported feel- and mental health needs of ing overwhelming anxiety in our students – can be dauntthe past 12 months. Nearly 40 ing. One way to do it is to percent of college students re- bring college mental health ported feeling “so depressed and well-being topics into the it was difficult to function,” classroom and make them over 60 percent reported feel- part of the open and serious ing “very lonely,” and 87 per- academic conversations we cent felt “overwhelmed.” It’s have with students. Another clear that our college students way is to design our courses are struggling. What can edu- so that they integrate the cators do to help? various strands of students’ This question has particu- disparate lives – weaving tolar relevance for instructors at gether their social and emoJesuit colleges and universi- tional lives with their academic and cognitive lives. And most important, we can help students to develop a sense of belonging on our campuses, foster meaningful relationships, and create connections to people within our campus community who can help them not only on their academic path but also on their life journey. The Engelhard Project: An Experiment in Curriculum Infusion The Engelhard Project: Curriculum Infusion Model Faculty link academic course content to a selected well-being topic through the following elements: • Readings & Discussions • Campus Resource Professional Visit • Student Written Reflections In 2005, a group of Georgetown faculty, teaching and learning center staff, and counseling and student services professionals began to experiment with these kinds of conversations in the classroom, with the aim of destigmatizing mental health and other stressors, After faculty determine a mental health or wellengaging students more deeply in their learning, and being topic for their course, they incorporate three nurturing feelings of belonging and meaningful con- engagement components into their teaching: relenections. Initially supported by the Bringing Theory vant readings, discussion with a campus resource to Practice Project, this effort is known today as the professional, and student written reflections. Engelhard Project for Connecting Life and Learning. Faculty select class readings that illustrate and The project uses a “curriculum infusion” approach, support the connection between the chosen topic, in which faculty integrate topics of mental health and the course’s academic content, and students’ own well-being into their courses. lives. Alan Mitchell (theology) teaches Introduction As part of the project, faculty select a specific to Biblical Literature with a focus on friendship and mental health topic as the focal point of their com- health relationships and assigns relevant biblical mitment to creating space in the classroom for the texts from the New Testament (specifically from “real world.” A sampling of such topics from past Luke and Acts of the Apostles) that demonstrate the courses includes anxiety, depression, eating disor- richness of friendship traditions. ders, flourishing, adjusting to college, and coping To enhance the discussion of the readings and to with stress. The opportunities to make connections truly bring campus life, national data, and relevant between these topics and course content are endless college student issues into the classroom, the faculty and can be found in unexpected places. For example, partner with a campus resource professional for a over his years of involvement with the project, Jim classroom visit and discussion – for example, a staff Sandefur (mathematics) has used math models to il- member from Counseling & Psychiatric Services, lustrate the effects on the human body of drug, al- Health Education Services, or Campus Ministry. cohol, and substance use in his Introduction to Math This visit enables a conversation with a campus exModeling course. In her Synaptic Transmission pert who shares anecdotes, data, and ideas on “what course, Kathy Maguire-Zeiss (neuroscience) exam- to do” for oneself and others. This takes some of the ines the effect of sleep deprivation on the brain, burden off of the faculty member and also exposes body, and resulting functioning. These illustrations students to the available campus resources. Putting teach students about the scientific effect of human a face and a name to the people who make up cambehaviors and also stimulate conversations about pus resources – and the campus safety net for stuhealthy choices and how to live a flourishing life. dents – can make the challenging step of reaching out for help a little bit easier. And sometimes that little bit is all that’s needed for students to seek help for themselves or for friends. The final component of the Engelhard curriculum infusion model is a written student reflection. An essential part of Ignatian pedagogy, reflection on one’s observations, emotions, and experiences, helps to process learning by noting connections, giving voice to revelations, and imagining future selves. Semester after semester, students comment that their Engelhard course – and especially the required reflection – “made me stop to think” or “gave me needed space to reflect on my own well-being that I otherwise would not have had.” Impact on Students A common sentiment among students where faculty have employed this curriculum infusion model is that “it was refreshing to take a class where I felt like the professor cared about my well-being.” The students’ descriptions of the Engelhard classroom environments are inspiring. Says one student, “walking into class, I felt like I was entering a tight-knit community with a professor who cared about me and everyone else in the class, as an individual person.” Heidi Elmendorf (biology) offers her 250-person Foundations in Biology course as an Engelhard course and assigns students a project in which they investigate mental illness. Alongside this work, and only after a sense of community has been built in the class, Elmendorf shares her own personal experiences with depression. In her words, it is “endlessly surprising how much it matters to students and how much they want to take us up on the opportunity to connect on a personal level” – connections between the ideas and students’ lives and between students and professor. These emotional connections also develop among the students themselves. Discussing his Engelhard course, a student reflected, “I am a senior, and this is the first time that a professor has encouraged so much community that I have known the name of everyone in class.” Another vivid student reflection: I felt the ice melting between each person in the room, and I realized that this was actually the first and only class where I really enjoyed seeing each face that was in the classroom. I felt happy when somebody had something fun or good to share, and I felt sad and sympathetic when somebody was going through a hard time. Until I experienced it this semester, I [never] realized how difficult it actually is to have these kinds of experiences in classrooms… I feel like the Engelhard Project really allowed me to see Georgetown in a new light. People who I thought I would never share my story with, let alone simply talk to, became people who cared for me.” Our students bring their whole selves – with their problems and their struggles – to our campuses, and they carry their full humanity into our classrooms. Our students’ feelings of overwhelming anxiety, loneliness, and depression cannot be ignored. Here at Georgetown, we have seen the benefits of an intentional shift in many classrooms to acknowledge and engage the student’s whole self – including areas of mental health and well-being – and to broaden the academic conversation to include the whole person. This shift creates a tremendous opportunity for students to connect their lives with their academic learning and to establish truly meaningful relationships that can support them throughout their college experience and hopefully beyond. Relationships with fellow students, campus resource professionals, and faculty members all matter to strengthening one’s sense of belonging, to supporting one’s learning, and to nurturing one’s mental health. Students – and faculty – are hungry for the opportunity to belong, to create community, to relate. With a little focused intention, we can satisfy this hunger. Laura D. Valtin is a graduate of Georgetown University and a former project coordinator at Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS). Mindy McWilliams is the associate director for assessment at CNDLS. David Ebenbach is a full professor of the practice at Georgetown’s Center for Jewish Civilization and a project manager at CNDLS.


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Laura D. Valtin, Mindy McWilliams, David Ebenbach. Well-being in the Curriculum: What Faculty Can Do to Address the Mental Health of Our Students, Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education, 2018,