Active Minds at Tufts considers training professors to support students’ mental health

Seniors Emma Lampropoulos (left) and Bri Pastro (right), members of Active Minds at Tufts, pose for a portrait on Nov. 6. Erik Britt / The Tufts Daily

Content warning: This article discusses mental health.

Active Minds at Tufts, the university’s chapter of Active Minds — an advocacy organization dedicated to prioritizing students’ mental health with representatives at over 450 colleges and high schools — is drawing support from a new demographic: professors.

Active Minds at Tufts carries out its mission on two fronts, according to senior Emma Lampropoulos, the chapter’s social chair. The first is through holding events on campus to make students more aware of issues surrounding mental health, such as Mental Health Monologues, which is held annually in the spring semester. The second is the work on which Active Minds at Tufts collaborates with the university’s administration and faculty.

“We’re sort of the go-between for students and [the] administration as far as mental health issues that aren’t being addressed well,” Lampropoulos said.

In its collaborative work, Active Minds at Tufts recently began an initiative to improve paths of dialogue between students, professors and mental health facilitators. As academics produce much of the stress that college students are forced to handle, Active Minds at Tufts believes that faculty members can serve as critical allies in supporting students’ mental health.

“[Relationships with] professors are definitely an area that can be improved,” Lampropoulos said

Lampropoulos and Active Minds at Tufts co-President Bri Pastro have already met with Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat MacMahon and Deans of the Schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering James Glaser and Jianmin Qu, respectively, to discuss this new partnership.

“We had a conversation with them about issues that we feel are going on with professors, and they agreed that things need to be addressed,” Pastro, a senior, said.

Pastro noted her observation that professors are willing to help students with their mental health struggles but that they do not often know how to react in such situations. In response to this inconsistency, Active Minds at Tufts is trying to strengthen its relationships with professors in order to provide them with advice for how students who approach them with mental health-related questions can be better supported.

“I think a lot of professors want to say something if they notice a student is struggling but don’t know what to do,” Pastro said. “They acknowledge the reality of the situation — how it can be hard to have a conversation with a student — and say they are worried for the student. They’re required to report to Counseling and Mental Health Service. They don’t always [do so], which is an issue … but they don’t always know how to.”

Lampropoulos affirmed the chapter’s intent to assist faculty in providing support for students.

“We’re trying to … educate professors. If a student comes to you — what you should do and what language to do,” Lampropoulos said.

According to Lampropoulos and Pastro, Active Minds at Tufts is trying to tackle the latter objective: giving professors the language they need to help students.

“We’re trying to educate them that maybe a student isn’t showing up to class, [not] because they’re lazy, but because they’re going through a really bad depressive episode,” Pastro said.

Sophomore McKenzie Schuyler, who serves as outreach chair for Active Minds at Tufts, explained that faculty members should be taught to embrace a bigger-picture view of mental health.

“Professors should be promoting a culture where if you need to take a step back for your well-being, that’s fine. It’s not going to have [a] detrimental effect on your future,” Schuyler said.

Pastro reiterated this sentiment, noting her concern for the increasing culture of stress and pressure that she has observed on campus.

“The ‘Struggle Olympics’ is where people compete [to see] who has slept the least, who has the most work,” Pastro said. “It can be really damaging to people.”

As for the logistics of building up its relationship with professors, Active Minds at Tufts began by collecting student data through social media, according to Schuyler.

“We recently collected data through a poll to gauge students’ interactions with professors regarding mental health and what they want their professors to know about the obstacles they’ve faced,” Schuyler said.

The survey’s findings were widespread. In response to the question, “Do you believe professors are understanding of students’ mental health?” 30 percent of students said ‘no’ while 70 percent were a mixture of ‘yes’ and other write-in answers, according to Schuyler. A majority of respondents answered affirmatively in response to a question asking whether they see a disconnect between professors’ understanding of, and students’ experiences with, mental health, Schuyler added.

“A lot of students don’t want to talk to professors because they don’t know if they’ll be receptive,” Schuyler said.

Schuyler also attended the Arts and Sciences department chairs and program directors meeting on Nov. 14, where she presented ideas for a curriculum to train professors on how to approach students’ mental health.

“Tufts currently offers an optional training for mental health, but from feedback, maybe that should be mandatory,” Schuyler said.

Lampropoulos added that Active Minds at Tufts presented at the Nov. 14 meeting in order to garner support for its mental health education proposals.

“The goal is to … get the department chairs on board with us coming in. We [said], ‘This is who we are. This is what we want to do, and this is why it’s warranted,’” Lampropoulos said.

According to Lampropoulos, Active Minds at Tufts is considering several options for training professors, including Kognito, an interactive online training program that educates individuals in supporting students dealing with all sorts of mental health-related issues.

“The deans didn’t oppose it, so we’re going to think about [pushing] that idea,” Lampropoulos said. “We might do motivational interviewing with professors, encouraging them [on] why they would want to do this. We want to make a pamphlet they can take home with them and even create videos where professors talk about their mental health struggles to support other professors.”

Schuyler explained that Active Minds at Tufts’ next step is to present these ideas to each department. While the chapter is grateful for the administration’s working with them to help students, its members do not know how feasible the plan is.

“It’s going to be tricky,” Schuyler said. “I appreciate them giving us the chance to improve this dynamic.”