Supporting Mental Health and Wellness for Adult LearnersKristen Lee | Associate Teaching Professor in the College of Professional Studies, Northeastern University
Academic achievement is tied, inextricably, to mental health. But in a world of deadlines and course readings, mental health can be severely overlooked.In this interview, Kristen Lee talks about the importance of sustaining mental health for academic staff and students alike, and discusses some of the ways that holistic mental health practices can be integrated into an institution’s culture.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): When we talk about university mental health support, we tend to focus on traditional 18- to 22-year-old learners. Why do administrators of adult-serving divisions also need to be focused on the mental wellbeing of their students?
Kristen Lee (KL): Historically, traditional learners received so much focus because they were the main constituency of higher education. Because of that historical focus, mental health support services were automatically built for and thought about in terms of traditional students. But the number of non-traditional learners at postsecondary institutions has really escalated in recent years. From a cultural and generational standpoint, people often assume that adults have the agency to access help or recognize when they need it, which can result in an institutional mindset of: “That’s not our responsibility.” So, in many cases, those support mechanisms for adult learners just aren’t there to begin with. It can be a daunting task for leaders in higher ed to consider their responsibility in this regard, and to go about thoughtfully providing access to the right kinds of support.
Additionally, mental health has historically been stigmatized or misunderstood from a biopsychosocial lens. It’s incumbent upon us as educators, especially in today’s hyper-competitive market where we’re seeing a rise in mental health crises, to take responsibility for providing those supports.
Evo: We tend to think of adult learners as “having it together.” Does that assumption create a roadblock?
KL: It’s really important that we work to deconstruct some of those assumptions about adult learners, particularly when we look at the intensive, competitive context of higher education. It’s very typical for students within our arena to experience distress just because of the sheer nature of the intensity of the work load.
One thing the literature reveals is that our adult learners aren’t just dealing with the rigor of academic study. Whether it’s full time work, or family roles and responsibilities, there are so many things that our students are dealing with that can negatively affect their ability to cope.
Giving adult learners a universal prevention lens through which to consider their mental health is helpful. These are methods of self-care, and attentiveness to things like lifestyle medicine—meaning proper sleep, nutrition, movement, connection and community—that can help cultivate resilience and protect students’ well-being. It really helps our students when we embed those universal precautions or preventions in our models. When we stigmatize stress or mental health issues, we’re implying that it’s either a moral failing on a student’s part or that it’s an unusual or extreme situation.
73 percent of learners will have at least one mental health crisis while they’re studying. Certainly, there are variants in the data according to what level somebody is studying at, but that statistic tells us that assumptions around mental health struggles being “unusual” is just not the case. Those assumptions have to be challenged. If anything, they need to be replaced with the notion of universal prevention.
It’s better to err on the side of providing as many protective resources as we can for our students and holistically incorporating them into the campus culture. Mental health is a huge disruptor of persistence. We know that, for example, when someone is experiencing very high-end, pervasive anxiety, they’re not going to have as much access to their frontal lobe. As a result, their ability to effectively reason and process will be lessened. So, when we talk about wanting to see our students accomplish their goals and contribute positively to the learning environment, we have to be sure we’re giving them all the tools they need to nurture their full self.
Evo: What mechanisms can universities use to support the mental wellbeing of their adult learners?
KL: I’m situated at Northeastern University in Boston. We’re very unique in that we have these pillars of well-being that we’re infusing across the university to help students track their activities in the context of well-being. We have varied workshops and opportunities across the university to speak about topics like mindfulness or self-care and time management. Those kinds of initiatives help us provide the skills and resources learners need to cope.
In general, I think about mental health from a holistic standpoint, which means finding ways to embed it in the culture of the institution. Obviously, this is a tall order, but it’s incumbent upon us to take mental health into consideration when we’re putting out messaging about success and opportunity, and encouraging students to set ambitious goals. Without compromising those goals, we have to situate this conversation within the context of sustainability: How do we position it so that students strive for excellence, but not in a way that’s putting them at a heightened risk for burnout? We need to help students reach for success, but we also need to anchor those messages in self-care.
For example, let’s take the idea of getting enough sleep. That’s so basic, but it’s hard to keep it on our priority list, and that can have a serious impact on mental health. Reminders around sleep management—and they can come through the faculty chain, they can come through the institutional messaging or academic advising or peer support—can be so helpful. Anything an institution can do to encourage people to take part in the community and know that their voice is valued can be among the most pivotal things when folks are keeping their heads down and not looking to their fellow learners for solidarity and support.
We need to provide those holistic learning opportunities to think strategically and consciously about whole health and integrate that into a student’s academic experience. That’s a significant contributing factor to protecting mental health.
Nothing’s worth doing if it’s going to compromise our mental health. You don’t have to choose success over mental health. They can work together.
Evo: How can leaders of non-traditional divisions ensure staff and faculty aren’t being put at risk of a mental health crisis of their own while trying to support student mental health?
KL: This question is really vital and it’s something that begs our collective attention.
I’ve had the opportunity to interact with continuing education units at many different conferences and institutions, and it was striking to realize that leaders are all experiencing the same challenges at the staff level, too. It’s been eye opening. We need to think very strategically about how we can protect the life-blood of the educational spectrum, meaning the educational staff and faculty.
For educators, it’s really important that we all understand we are at a particular risk for burnout. You could think about it as an occupational hazard: When we see the extraordinary needs of our students, we want to respond. We want to give our 100 percent and be part of helping them to reach their goals. But that requires so much of our own emotional, and mental, and cognitive bandwidth that it can compromise us. This results in high rates of turnover in postsecondary institutions. We see presenteeism, which is a way of saying that people are showing up, but they’re very disconnected from their work. We’re also seeing increasing levels of absenteeism and sick leaves. That all comes back to burnout.
One way to combat this is to recognize that whatever is good for our students is also good for us. From an institutional standpoint, how do we really think about human capital and resilience? How do we keep that holistic precaution lens top of mind for educators as well?
From a brain science perspective, we know that when we’re working 80-hour work weeks and not sleeping, we can’t shut our minds off from work. We’re carrying it home with us, and we’re not engaging in self-care. That’s just not sustainable, and it contributes to various mental and physical health spectrum issues.
Institutions and organizations at large often struggle with providing that necessary education and encouragement to unplug, because we want to get the best out of our employees. But we also know when we provide opportunities for well-being and mindfulness practice, it actually helps people flourish and be more engaged and productive.
Leaders have a significant role in creating that culture. Certainly, one of the most valuable factors in mental health can be knowing that you’re cared for; knowing that your work is appreciated and your time is valuable. Scaffolding responsibilities and implementing distributed workloads can be really important.
If we are able to embody that as faculty and staff members, then that will influence the student population as well. It contributes to the whole idea of creating opportunities to have honest dialogue. I’ve been very vocal about my own lived experiences with burnout and anxiety and depression. Talking about that through my position as a lead faculty member and clinical practitioner, especially as someone who believes no one should ever be stigmatized for these experiences, has been an interesting way of engaging with people and opening that dialogue.
Most of us are in that boat where we are teetering on the edge of burnout. I think it’s important that we have honest discussions about it. It shouldn’t be taboo.
One very simple thing we need to do is just remind people to make use of their Employee Assistance Program (EAP) benefits. Most institutions offer free access to counseling, confidential help and other types of wellness resources.
Sometimes the smallest things can make a big difference in terms of how someone feels valued. Doris Santoro’s work on educator demoralization talks about this. She extends the conversation about the risk for burnout to say that sometimes the moral rewards of our work diminish in the face of really punitive institutional culture or intensive, back-breaking work loads.
Leaders have an opportunity to mitigate those risks of demoralization or burnout, and to create that solidarity experience. The science is overwhelmingly affirming that providing access and reinforcement around holistic practices really helps protect us. Whether through mindfulness or lifestyle medicine, self-care, self-compassion, setting proper boundaries, community, or honest discussion, all of those things can contribute positively to campus mental health.
When you think about protecting the educators in terms of mental health, it will also impact the learning community as a whole. It’s really extraordinary to think about.
Evo: What resources do you suggest for people if they are feeling that burnout coming on?
KL: I would encourage people to learn about mindful practices. I have some resources on my website about protecting mental health and preventing burnout. Active Minds also has helpful resources. Partnering with your human resources department on campus can really lend itself to some great ideas about programming. Even trying to connect with the traditional resources on campus to learn what models are effective and how they might be adapted for adult learners can be very helpful.
I love the way Louis Weiner talks about focusing on a strength-based lens in education that helps people build on their strengths. I love the Values in Action Inventory by Marty Seligman, the founder of positive psychology , which helps us align our values to our behavior.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.
Author Perspective: Educator