Spending thirty minutes of one class session on honest talk about stress and suffering and coping and healing can have an enormous positive impact on our students’ lives.
In my office hour, a student once told me that I may have saved their life by speaking openly about self-care and mental health in my literature seminar.
They said that what enabled them to turn their life around when they didn’t think they could was hearing ‘someone like me’ – a lecturer, a staff member, a professional academic – speak honestly and empathetically not only about the pressures that students feel but about his own experiences coping and also failing to cope with these pressures.
Suffering among students is ubiquitous
This experience was humbling and gratifying, but it was also chilling. Because, while the suffering of this individual student was extreme in intensity, it is ubiquitous in kind.
In the teacher feedback I have collected anonymously at the end of every semester for the past few years, students tell me all the time how grateful they are that I speak about self-care, how unique that is in their experience of university, and how meaningful it was for them to witness me do it.
It’s not even about my exact words, it’s about hearing someone say them, seeing him share experience, show understanding. Of all the aspects of my teaching that I receive feedback on, the thirty minutes that I spend on talking about self-care in one of my sessions are by far the one thing that students address most often, most emphatically, and most personally.
That is because they all know how it feels.
We need to talk about mental health
This is why I think that it is time for more teachers to do this, it is time to normalise the discourse of self-care, to acknowledge the struggle and sometimes even the suffering that students deal with, and to share our own strategies of dealing with it. Because these strategies are needed: the suffering is wide-spread, acute, and often overwhelmingly intense. 1
Since, judging from the student feedback, what I do is existentially important to a lot of students, and because I have developed a specific ‘script’ of addressing these difficult topics which works well for me and might make it easier for other teachers, I would like to share my strategies here.
How to talk about mental health and self-care
What I do is that I take thirty minutes of a seminar session to speak about the general challenges of being a university student, the research data on decreasing levels of mental health among students, my own individual struggle with stress and mental health issues as a student, and the institutional resources that students can use to receive help.
Here is my ‘script’ for this thirty-minute talk in its progressive steps:
Pick a good time
I usually choose a session in the fourth or fifth week of the semester, when the students have already gotten to know me a bit and I them. I start the session with this topic so that I have enough time for students who want to comment at the end of my talk.
Present the issue
Because mental health issues are still stigmatized in Germany, talking about them publicly will immediately raise affective filters in the audience.
To mitigate this effect, I start out by informing my students that I will take thirty minutes to talk about “issues of self-care”, after which they are welcome, but by no means required, to make comments or ask questions. This serves well, in my experience, to set the stage for a ‘serious topic’ without creating an instant surge of anxiety and fear of being asked to share experience or speak up at all.
Acknowledge how stressful student life is for all students
I start with empathetic remarks on the student experience, simply to make students aware of the surprising number of new experiences they make, the obvious difficulty of juggling them all at once, and the fact that I, too, am aware of this.
I mention aspects like moving away from parents and friends, establishing a household routine of one’s own in a flat share or dorm, finding work and earning money, building and maintaining new friendships and romantic relationships – those are all fundamental developments in many students’ lives which require emotional, intellectual, and physical energy.
As do, of course, the demands of institutional education like acquiring and applying new knowledge and skill sets, keeping up with assignments and honouring deadlines, passing or failing exams, achieving reasonably good grades, navigating the labyrinth of university administration (which is challenging even for long-time professionals), etc.
This opening is inclusive of all student experience and avoids an exclusive discourse of pathology and ‘problem students’.
Address the phenomena of severe stress and the stigma of talking about it
Next, I point to my experience as a teacher that for many students these collective demands are overwhelming to the point of intense anxiety, panic attacks, burn-out and depression. I point out that this is not about ‘us’ and ‘them’, that there is no tipping point at which you turn from ‘struggling student’ to ‘basket case’ but that there is a continuum from stress to depression and that it is easy to traverse from the one to the other without an awareness of your own limits and a practice of self-care.
Students tell me that they often find it extremely hard to talk to their friends and parents about their struggle at university: They report that they are being ignored, patronized, or insulted as ‘snowflakes’ who should ‘just buck up’. Feeling overwhelmed is still stigmatized and treated as if showing empathy would put the listener at risk of ‘catching’ the feelings. Vulnerability is often met with fear at best and scorn at worst. And we are not even speaking about diagnosed mental illnesses: for those students the situation is often much worse, and they lose the support of their social network when they admit to needing it most.
This stigmatization (that many of the audience have internalized themselves) is why it is important to raise awareness about just how ubiquitous overwhelming stress seems to be.
I am deliberately blunt about this by asking students to look at their peers to the left and right: every second or third of their fellow students would admit – if being allowed to be perfectly honest – that they suffer under stress levels that feel unhealthy, that they doubt their choice of subject or have thought about quitting university, that they have avoided exams for fear of failure, that they have never attended an office hour because they fear being judged by their lecturers, that they lie awake with anxiety about their current finances and their future job chances, that they think every bad grade reflects a flaw in their character, that they are in therapy or think they should be, etc.
At this point, I can always feel the tension in the room rise noticeably and I see some students nod their heads in recognition: they know.
Show that you know, too: share experience
The above list of relatable indicators for what it means to feel overwhelmed enables students to see their personal connection with the topic. But until now, it’s still a lecturer lecturing about heavy stuff. The crucial step for me is to show my own vulnerability, to show that I know their stress from the inside.
This is why I report briefly and matter-of-factly on my own time as a promising student in the early 2000s, who wanted nothing more than to be a scholar but who felt utterly rejected by an impersonal and bureaucratic system of higher education. I tell students how I struggled hard for five years, how I developed burnout symptoms and eventually dropped out without a degree. I tell them about the feelings of shame and failure that I carried around for years. I tell them how I made a living as a professional programmer instead, how I lost this job years later in the wake of the financial crisis. I tell them how, when I decided to go back to university at age 31, I finally did find connection and inspiration, completed a bachelor’s and a master’s degree that lead to my current PhD research position.
I tell them about this in some more detail, but my story is not important beyond my classroom. In your classroom, your story is what’s important. Tell your students about your own failures and successes, be authentic, be personal, be vulnerable. Admit that this is difficult.
The function of telling a story about my own failure and eventual round-about and still tenuous success is that it puts the students’ lives with their own specific struggles into perspective. Students see in my words a lived reality that is similar to theirs, but projected into a plausible and complex future, with all the messy twists and turns, the setbacks and achievements, the regrets and the pride.
In a sense, my story contains the students’ fear of failure, in the double sense of the word: they see it having become a reality for me, but they also see that there is experience, process, horizon to the failure. There is agency, narrative, sense-of-self to it. Failure hasn’t consumed me, but I also haven’t erased it, it simply belongs to me. I still exist despite of my failure and my current self exists partly because of it. There is no point in shame, vulnerability is inevitable and can be embraced. 2
I close with what I call, self-ironically, the two-part moral of the tale, and that is:
a) You are now not as alone as I was, because you now know that others have similar experiences to yours. You are not unique in your struggle or your suffering.
b) This knowledge is power. If I had known of student counselling, if I had known about depression, if I had known about self-care and mindfulness, if I had known how to speak about my fear of failure – I would in all likelihood have sought and found help and not dropped out of university in the first place.
I also point to a handout with contacts of university institutions that provide counselling, and I make myself available as ‘someone to talk to’ even though I’m not a professional counsellor.
The worst aspect of depression is the feeling of loneliness, the feeling that you alone feel what you feel while everyone else is fine. Of course, everyone is not fine, and you are surrounded by people who suffer in similar ways. Help lies in the knowledge that people do understand. But this knowledge must be shared, it must be driven home, connection must be established from the outside, help must be offered – because depression is the disbelief in the existence of help or change, the loss of hope.
Against hopelessness, I believe, the only antidotes are honesty, authenticity, and empathy. The ‘self-care talk’ is a powerful dose of that antidote.
Invite comments and questions
Usually, at this point, the room is very quiet, and the tension has given way to thoughtfulness. Eyes are bright, some focused on me, some focused inward.
Sometimes students cry because they recognize themselves in my words – that’s okay, we don’t need to do anything about that right now: their tears are both tears of sadness and of relief, they feel seen and can see themselves. I sometimes ask them later if they are okay, if that feels appropriate.
Students now re-evaluate the classroom situation, they re-think who I am and who they are. Something new happened. Something important. Obviously, sadly, most have rarely ever heard a ‘person of authority’ speak to them about personal, existential experiences.
When seminars have taken up my invitation to comment or ask questions, it often was a beautifully rewarding experience of authentic expression and practiced empathy among the students – once that even happened in a lecture hall with 80 people.
Most seminars keep quiet and that’s okay: I have done this so often by now, I know how important the session was for them, even if they don’t express it right away. I know it from end-of-term evaluations. And I know it from individual students who sit in my office hours, telling me how thirty minutes of blunt honesty about stress and suffering and coping and healing, of individual experience related in an institutional context, may have saved their lives.
I don’t follow the professional discussion, but I constantly pick up news like this overview by Peter Gray on the situation in the US (2015), this report on skyrocketing levels of mental illness among students in the UK (2017), or this study by a German public health fund on a 76% rise in diagnosed mental illness among German students since 2006 (2018). ↩
“Failure”: I use this strong word deliberately here, even though I don’t even think of myself as having ‘failed’ at anything anymore. But I did think that for the longest time, and it took me hard work to re-narrativize the experience of not achieving my dream in other terms. I prefer not to hedge around the fact that for many students, too, their struggle will feel like cold, brutal, soul-crushing failure: it’s a matter of experiential honesty. ↩