Provost begins Quality Initiative for student mental health

The University of Minnesota is coordinating an initiative to improve learning environments and better support student mental health.

by Olivia Hines

The Faculty Consultative Committee reviewed a mental health Quality Initiative by Provost Rachel Croson on Nov. 17 to support students struggling with mental health in the classroom.

The University plans to implement recommended practices that support student mental health and increase instructors’ awareness in an academic environment. An assessment framework will be developed over the next three years to guide, document and analyze changes in student mental health.

The Quality Initiative is a component of the Higher Learning Commission and upholds the University’s commitment to ensure all students fully receive the benefits of their educational experience. It aims to transform learning environments by implementing three objectives, which include professional development, recommended practices and assessment framework.

Through professional development, all faculty and instructors are required to complete training on accommodation basics, aspects of Universal Design for Learning and teaching with flexibility.

“The University’s goal is to continually improve learning environments for students,” Croson said in an email to the Minnesota Daily.

The three-year proposal is part of a 10-year review cycle, which includes an assessment in 2025 to decide if the University’s interventions have been effective and should be continued, or if changes need to be made.

“Our shared goal is to give instructors the tools that they need to design their courses in a way that reduces stress and promotes mental health,” Croson said.

The Quality Initiative is coordinated by the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost in partnership with the provost’s executive team.

In 2020, 39% of undergraduate students had generalized anxiety disorder, while 35% struggled with major depressive disorder.

Alex Goers, a second-year student, said their struggle with depression worsened when they came to campus.

“It’s a big campus, it’s a big school, there’s a lot happening and it’s very easy to feel lonely,” Goers said.

Due to their depression, Goers dropped out of two classes because they could not keep up with the content and struggled to interact with professors.

“I feel there’s a little bit of a disconnect between mental health resources and the professors at the school,” Goers said. “I feel like [professors] encourage students to seek mental health, but at the same time, if you are going through something, maybe the professor will accommodate, maybe the professor won’t, it just depends.”

A student who wishes to stay anonymous, for reasons pertaining to sexual misconduct, had difficulties with the chemistry department.

The alleged sexual misconduct occurred before the anonymous student had exams and as a result, requested extensions through the Aurora Center, a center designed to help students who’ve experienced sexual misconduct.

“Most of my professors were able to extend the deadline,” the anonymous student said. “But the chemistry department, they were not very accommodating at all.”

The student said the chemistry department did not allow extensions of their exams, instead, professors used the student’s average score from previous exams to replace the missed exam.

“That was really frustrating,” the anonymous student said. “Because I know I definitely could have done better on that exam.”

Educators play a key role in developing the context in which students can manage stressors related to learning, Croson said.

Learning environments, as well as instructor interactions with students, can either support student mental health or cause unnecessary student stress.

“We want to make sure that the course environment and instructor interactions with students result in reduced stress and better mental health,” Croson said.

The Quality Initiative is not the only way students can access support for mental health at the University. Student Counseling Services (SCS) and Boynton Mental Health (BMH) provide short-term mental health services for students, including initial consultations to assess needs and make recommendations for care, group or individual counseling and therapy, and case management services.

Students can access these services through online appointments, walk-ins or by calling Boynton.

“Mental health providers at Student Counseling Services and Boynton Mental Health are committed to creating a safe, welcoming, and supportive environment for students seeking care,” Matthew Hanson, interim director of Boynton Health mental clinic, and Michelle Bettin, interim director of student counseling services, said in an email to the Daily.

Grace Heimdahl, a fourth-year student, has been receiving therapy through BMH for generalized anxiety since her freshman year.

Though it was difficult at first to start therapy, Heimdahl said she has had a great experience with Boynton.

“I have an excellent therapist,” Heimdahl said. “In terms of medication, Boynton is extremely helpful and convenient.”

Students can access personalized mental health support at BMH and SCS. The goal of the Initiative is to transform learning environments so students experience less stress and professors are better equipped to handle students’ mental health challenges.

The Initiative will help the University continue to meet its core mission of education and access, ensuring that all students succeed, Croson said.