How We Begin to Improve Mental Health

A “culture of exhaustion,” “unwellness in isolation,” and “competition for perfection”: These are the troubling terms Colorado College faculty members use to describe the state of mental health on the CC campus.

The national mental health crisis is real and present at CC, and faculty, staff, and college leaders are all in a position to support and assist students.

But how bad is the problem? And how do we get to effective, lasting solutions?

Kristi Erdal is a professor in the Department of Psychology and chair of the Department of Human Biology and Kinesiology. A clinical psychologist, Erdal’s research interests include cross-cultural issues in depression and other mental illnesses.

Erdal believes CC has a “culture of exhaustion,” which has shown itself to be unsustainable. But she’s hopeful that Project 2024 may help to focus us on concrete solutions to, for instance, show students that overcommitment will not necessarily help them to achieve their goals.

CC faculty often have close relationships with students, says Erdal, and that is one of the special aspects of CC. Indeed, the faculty are typically on the front lines of noticing student disengagement.

“We have re-centered syllabi and course goals to explicitly include more flexibility, which is challenging on the Block Plan, for students undergoing a whole manner of life events, not just mental health problems. I have been very impressed by the creativity and compassion of our faculty, especially as illness and mental health issues affect our own families as well,” says Erdal.

But faculty can’t shoulder the responsibility alone. She says many problems brought into focus during the pandemic, such as CC work-study students being unable to attend afternoon classes or office hours, are as yet unsolved. Erdal says it will take budgeted priorities to assist students financially or help faculty adjust curricula that will serve all students (e.g., no afternoon classes), “and that depends upon leadership.”

Chantal Figueroa has a similar take but comes from a different discipline. An assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Figueroa has been researching mental health through an educational lens.

“The silos of mental health and education need to be broken. In my mental health policy class, I walk students through using critical discourse analysis and understanding mental health policy to get to mental health values. Teaching students how to be critical about mental health values helps them understand their own mental health,” Figueroa says.

Figueroa says it’s hard to always see the burden of change for mental health support placed on teachers.

“Teaching is a craft and specialty you develop over years. So, I worry about this idea of responsibility. It must be a multi-sided approach involving the institution, staff, and faculty. Mental health support is an aspect of organizational culture that needs to be intentional and nurtured. As somebody who specializes in creating the strategies to have that shift, I know it can happen very quickly if the political will for institutional change exists.”

“If you can build a stadium in two years, you can nurture a culture of mental health.”

Figueroa says CC students have a hard time sharing their unwellness with one another and being in community while also being unwell.

“It really broke my heart to realize that students are unwell in isolation. Research shows we don’t need to work so long to be productive. We must encourage students to be vulnerable with one another and resist the competition for perfection,” she says.

Tomi-Ann Roberts, a professor in the Department of Psychology, also shares suggestions for a positive change in the culture of CC. Instead of putting the onus on students, faculty, and support staff to set boundaries, “say no,” or not answer emails, Roberts says that leadership should not send emails on the weekend and should institute “no-screen days.”

“Slow the nonstop flood of calendar events, new initiatives, and urgent requests for replies from us here in the trenches doing the daily work of teaching and learning. Flip the burden, in other words. Students, faculty, and staff need prompt responses from leadership to our urgent requests.”

“On the Block Plan, emergencies snowball quickly,” Roberts says.

Bill Dove ’75 is the associate director of the Counseling Center. A licensed clinical psychologist, he has worked at the Counseling Center for more than 25 years. He says the demand for mental health services at the college was increasing before COVID, and has continued to increase, especially among first-year students.

“We have been able to keep up with the demand for services and find an appointment for students within a few days of request. Our staff is very diverse, and we try to give students a choice of the counselor they see. We also give them the choice of being seen in person or by video conference. Our medical prescribers are booked out a little longer, and that is a national trend,” he says.

In December, the college announced the addition of 24/7 telehealth counseling and crisis-response services for students. Also, all faculty and staff are required to complete an online QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) suicide prevention training by the end of Block 5.