On paper, May is Mental Health Month. In reality, every day since the coronavirus pandemic began has been mental health day, as people everywhere across the globe have been confronted with an unprecedented level of stress. For universities, the health crisis very quickly closed campuses and forced institutions to switch to remote learning. A quick Google search on college and mental health will yield a lot of results about students—but what about faculty?
When I specifically Googled “faculty, mental health, and coronavirus,” the top results were still about college students. There were even a couple of top results about how faculty could help students manage their coronavirus stress. But where were all the articles about professors managing their own mental health? I turned to Kevin Masters, PhD, professor of clinical health psychology at CU Denver, for some help.
As it turns out, Masters had also been looking for answers: “I was reviewing the psychological literature on quarantine the other day and was a little surprised to see the work I had been reviewing appear on the network news.” The problem with this scenario is that there is no precedent for a health crisis of this scale. “The truth is that in a ‘normal’ quarantine, some number of people are in quarantine and the rest of the world goes about business as usual: There is no worldwide threat of infection or economic ruin … Thus, there really are no studies regarding psychological functioning in a situation such as this, and we are left with using our best professional judgment with extrapolation,” Masters said.
It’s important to remember that when classes went from traditional in-person instruction to remote learning, professors had to respond quickly. Masters discusses the stresses faculty faced: “Certainly tops on everyone’s list who is involved in instruction is the need for a sudden, virtually overnight, move to virtual classrooms. Though some faculty had experience with online learning, I don’t know of any who had experience with planning an in-person class and then changing it in a few days, out of the blue, to being a class delivered online.”
Rebecca Barrett-Fox, who teaches sociology at Arkansas State University, took up the issue of switching to online instruction amidst a pandemic in an empathetic and funny blog post titled “Please Do A Bad Job of Putting Your Courses Online.” Barrett-Fox outlines all the reasons for doing a bad job, which all relate to the fact that everyone is in the middle of an unprecedented health crisis. She writes, “And, most importantly, your class is NOT the highest priority of their [students] OR your life right now.” Her advice? “Release yourself from high expectations right now, because that’s the best way to help your students learn.”
Masters also brought up this point, saying work-life balance no longer applies: “This is really a time to consider ‘work-crisis management-life’ balance.” He discussed how faculty can be very driven, goal-oriented people and, while this is great under normal circumstances, it is not the best response right now. “Literally no one on earth can remember the last global pandemic (1918),” he said. “Thus, no one has experience with how to handle all that goes with it.” The takeaway here is that faculty should reduce their typical expectations.
And the rest of the campus community—students, staff, and administrators—should adjust their expectations for faculty as well. “I think it would be very helpful if all of us have a sense of ‘shared coping,’” Masters advises. “We all need to give ourselves, and others, a break filled with empathy, patience, and understanding.”