Professors Seek to Balance Roles as Educators and Confidants

Nada  Shoreibah ‘23

Staff Writer

Illustration by Richard Farrell ’22

The American Psychological Association reports that over 40 percent of college students present with anxiety, depression, or relationship issues. But between academics, sports, student organizations, and socializing, mental health concerns are often overlooked despite their prevalence.      

In such a rigorous academic environment as Davidson’s, students find prioritizing mental health even more challenging. Health advisor Lily Acton ‘20 can attest to this firsthand. “I’ve been through it before,” she said. “Having homework in your classes is hard enough, but then I think what’s unique about Davidson students is we do a bunch of stuff on top of that. There are very few people who just do class here.” 

Director of the Center for Student Health & Well-Being Dr. David Graham agrees that students’ workload and often zealous involvement in extracurriculars leave little room for psychological self-care. “When you factor in typical things like sleeping, eating, and bathing,” he said, “they’re left with very few hours in the week that aren’t accounted for.” 

Most students view the counselors at the Center as the primary resource for mental health issues. Professors, however, also play a crucial role in promoting the mental well-being of their students. “A professor can make a huge difference in terms of how they establish their relationship with their students,” said Mental Health Advocate Max Higgins ‘21. “Getting to know them on a multifaceted level, not just as a student […] is really important.”

According to history professor and acting Chair of Gender & Sexuality Studies Dr. Patricia Tilburg, establishing this relationship can be as simple as offering students space to confide. “I have found over the years that just asking students how they are goes a long way,” she said. “A lot of students come to office hours [thinking] ‘I’m here to talk about my paper topic, or the exam.’ It’s actually quite magical […] how just hitting pause on the academic conversation opens up a space that students can fill.” 

As well as academic conversations, Tilburg is open to hitting pause on difficult deadlines to meet. Should a student’s mental health impede their ability to submit an assignment on time, she hopes they won’t hesitate to notify her before the due date. “I try to mention in class if you are having struggles right now, please tell me before […] the paper is due,” she said. “I give extensions. Quite easily in fact. I just need to be kept in the loop about what’s happening.”

Economics professor Dr. Fred Smith also believes in utilizing office hours to connect with students beyond the academic level. “In my introductory economics course, when I had the ability to, given the number of students in the class […], for the first quiz they could earn half of the points […] by just coming in to the office and introducing themselves and telling me a little bit about themselves.” he said. Smith hoped meeting students individually early on would make them feel welcome to come to him with any difficulties, academic or personal, they encounter later. “They at least knew that I didn’t bite,” he joked.  

While professors qualify as mental health resources for students to an extent, counseling is beyond the scope of their profession. “I don’t want to be the therapist because I’m not trained in it,” said Tilburg. Even so, they can offer practical guidance and consolation. “I think you certainly can express to students […] here are some strategies I know have worked in the past for students who have gone through this, you’re not alone, and this is something that a lot of students are facing.” 

Higgins added that listening to students’ concerns without necessarily advising them can be emotionally soothing in itself. “I think [professors] can do a lot without being a counselor,” he said. “Just being a listener is a big thing.”

Besides an obligation to report sexual harassment or violence under Title IX, professors are not held to any schoolwide procedures pertaining to mental health. How each approaches student mental health is largely individual, and some may not feel comfortable or qualified to discuss certain issues with a student. “If that happens, they should know other resources for students,” said Acton. “They shouldn’t just leave students hanging […] if they’re not able to navigate that conversation.” 

To ensure that professors are informed about these alternative resources, the Center for Student Health and Well-Being briefs incoming faculty members on the health and counseling services offered at Davidson. Holistic advisors, many of whom are faculty, undergo a similar process more targeted towards mental health. “We […] talk to them about things to look for, things to talk about with their advisees, resources that are on campus for them,” said Graham. “Just a variety of ways of helping students connect the dots on campus to resources that are […] available to them.” 

Students who endure mental health struggles but hesitate to seek support present a unique challenge. “The students that come and want to talk have already gotten over the stigma,” said Tilburg. “I’m often much more concerned about the students that are clearly in crisis […] but they are not reaching out.”  

To identify such cases, both Tilburg and Smith feel a responsibility to watch for markers of mental and emotional stress in their students. “I try to pay attention if I see a student who is sitting in a different place in class all of a sudden […], if I see a student who’s missing class, if I see a student who looks especially tired,” said Smith. “There are a number of visual clues that you can look for.” 

For especially alarming cases, professors have access to an online Student of Concern form. Through this reporting system, Assistant Dean of Students and Case Manager Angela Harris is notified so she can proactively develop a treatment plan. “Next steps may include meeting with me, meeting with their advisor, [or] being referred to other resources on […] or off campus,” said Harris.  

Students from marginalized communities are another group with more specialized mental health needs. “I think it […] can be true that marginalized students are disproportionately underserved by the resources that Davidson has to offer,” said Tilburg. 

Graham echoed this sentiment and explained that the first step professors should take is validating the inherent psychological challenges faced by marginalized and oppressed identities, specifically after attacks against their communities. “When those things happen outside [the classroom], like Orlando in 2016 or the Keith Lamont shooting in 2018, they play a large role in helping students process that,” he said. “It’s about acknowledging that their world doesn’t stop because they’re on campus. Where they’re from, their communities that have been impacted, they bring all of that into the room.” 

Currently, no student-driven mental health initiatives involving faculty are consistently implemented at Davidson. Higgins hopes this will change once the mental health advocacy program, which only branched away from the general health advisor program last year, becomes more established. “I think it’d be cool if [we offered] some kind of QPR [(Question, Persuade, Refer – a response system for persons at risk of suicide)] or mental health first aid seminars for being able to spot the signs, essentially, of depression or anxiety in students.”

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