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Faculty Senate hears efforts, challenges in addressing student mental health and well-being

The Faculty Senate heard a presentation on student mental health and well-being during its Oct. 20 meeting.

While student mental health can be a difficult topic, it’s critical to discuss in order to break down stigmas and give it the attention it deserves, Susie Brubaker-Cole, vice provost for student affairs (VPSA), told the Faculty Senate during a presentation Thursday on efforts to address student mental health.

Susie Brubaker-Cole, vice provost for student affairs, addresses the Faculty Senate on Thursday during a presentation on student mental health and well-being. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

“There’s probably no one in this room who has not been touched by mental health challenges – either personally, or through colleagues, or through students, or through family members or friends,” she said.

One in five adults in the U.S. live with a mental illness, and one in three young adults ages 18 to 25 experienced a mental health issue as of 2020, she added. “It is everywhere. We are in a moment of crisis.”

In his remarks, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne commented on recent news, including a report of findings on the history of Jewish admissions at Stanford and a visit from Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

A task force found that in the 1950s, Stanford suppressed the admission of Jewish students and then denied doing so for years.

“These findings have been deeply distressing to all of us in university leadership, as I know they must be to all of you who are here today,” Tessier-Lavigne said. He referred to the institutional apology he issued for these actions and said the university is embracing a series of recommendations made by a task force to enhance Jewish life on campus today.

Blinken was joined by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Anna Eshoo on a visit to the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory this week to highlight a new investment of $136 million in SLAC as part of the Inflation Reduction Act. All three spoke positively about Stanford and SLAC, Tessier-Lavigne said, with Blinken noting that research is essential for tackling the biggest problems facing the world today. Blinken also visited campus, where he joined Condoleezza Rice, the Tad and Dianne Taube Director of the Hoover Institution, for a discussion on national security, diplomacy, and technology.

Looking ahead, Tessier-Lavigne said he is excited to have alumni back on campus for Homecoming Weekend: “I am looking forward to seeing them and to showing them everything that’s new and exciting here at Stanford, from the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability to the COLLEGE program for our first-year undergraduate students, to new initiatives in the arts.”

David Palumbo-Liu, the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and professor of comparative literature, and by courtesy, of English, asked Provost Persis Drell about the upcoming Academic Freedom Conference sponsored by the Graduate School of Business. Palumbo-Liu cited concerns over various speakers and asked if Stanford is contributing financially to the invitation-only conference.

Drell said university funds are being used for the conference, which is consistent with policy. Graduate School of Business (GSB) Dean Jonathan Levin said two GSB faculty and a Hoover Institution senior fellow are organizing the conference, and that as a general rule, faculty are allowed to decide how to run conferences, which speakers to invite, whether to have media, and other details.

Levin said universities “strive to be places where we are fostering engagement and discussion and debate about a broad set of issues from a broad range of perspectives. We’re trying to create a collision of ideas that gives rise to research and to learning, and we give faculty and students extraordinary freedom to that end to pursue that goal.”

“That does not mean,” he continued, “that every discussion on campus, or every colloquium, or every conference is going to have a balanced range of perspectives and views. … And that’s a byproduct of the freedom that we give to faculty and to students.”

Sexual assault

Two sexual assaults that were the subject of Timely Warnings under the Clery Act in recent months remain top of mind for the campus community, Provost Persis Drell told senators.

She detailed how information about such occurrences is disseminated – and what can be made public. “What we are able to report to the community depends on the information we receive. In both of the recently reported cases, the information came from a mandated reporter. … The information did not come from the victim,” Drell said. “As a result, the information we received was very limited, and therefore what we shared was very limited.”

Drell also discussed ongoing efforts to prevent and respond to sexual violence, and ensure campus security. For example, there is prevention education, such as the “Beyond Sex Ed” program required for all frosh, and the “Above and beyond Sex Ed” program for all sophomores, juniors, and seniors. The SHARE Education team develops programs that dispel myths about sexual and relationship violence, provide guidance on risk reduction, and more.

Also, “SHARE Education teams work full time developing additional programming and continue to improve the programs we have,” Drell said, and “sexual harassment training is required for all faculty and employees every two years.”

The university is also working to ensure supportive and responsive resources for those who’ve experienced sexual violence by, for example, providing additional support for the Confidential Support Team to expand its staff.

Drell emphasized that making Stanford safer is a community effort, and that “it is an unfortunate truth that while we will endeavor to make Stanford safer, we cannot protect our campus community from all harmful acts.”

Stanford has several efforts underway to help address physical security, she continued, including evaluations of the need to enhance exterior lighting on campus, and a committee that is developing a strategy for installing more cameras on campus. The same committee is also exploring the development of a safety app that will allow community members to use their smartwatch or phone for alerts and security communications.

“We are committed to addressing these issues and we believe we can make some meaningful enhancements that will be welcomed by our community,” Drell said.

Patrick Dunkley, vice provost for institutional equity, access, and community, commended community engagement on the issue, adding that he has met with the Associated Students of Stanford University, staff, and others to understand how leadership can best address the community’s interests and concerns.

“One of the things that has been most encouraging to me throughout this difficult process is how our community has pulled together to identify areas that are important for us from a safety perspective and is looking to work together to provide the solutions,” he said. “I’m hoping that the energy around the work we’re doing together will continue not only on these issues, but other issues that might come up on campus.”

Jennifer Widom, the Frederick Emmons Terman Dean of the School of Engineering, asked if the increased number of security personnel around campus would be continued or phased out.

The increased patrols were added to address community concerns over the most recent incident and are not intended to be permanent, Dunkley said, and the university will consider when it is the right time to curtail the security.

Multiple senators asked about the project to add more cameras, requesting an update on the timeline and how footage may be used.

Dunkley said 250 cameras will be installed per year over the next four years, starting this year, at a budgeted cost of about $2.5 million. The cameras could be used to investigate both violent and non-violent crimes, such as burglaries.

Palumbo-Liu expressed concern about overreliance on technology and said there are questions about privacy that need to be addressed. “I think we should be very careful about exactly their application.”

Student mental health and well-being

A recent survey from the American College Health Association found that 79% of survey respondents reported moderate to high stress levels, said Corrie Potter, associate vice provost for institutional research and decision support. More than a third of survey respondents in this sample sought mental health care in the last year while 27% screened positive for suicidality.

Survey respondents said top impediments to their academic requirements include procrastination, stress, anxiety, depression, and sleep difficulties, Potter said. “So when students are asked what’s getting in their way of succeeding, these are the things that they most commonly list,” she told senators.

To address these pressing needs, and in conjunction with many other parts of campus, VPSA is focused on improving clinical accessibility; addressing pre-clinical issues early; ensuring culturally attuned clinical and non-clinical support; and deploying innovative communications strategies that ensure students have the information they need to flourish and address challenges as they arise, Brubaker-Cole said.

Efforts along these lines include sponsoring a Muslim Mental Health Initiative at the Markaz, increasing the number of full-time clinical staff at CAPS, and building a well-being coaching program for one-on-one support for students through non-clinical, developmental challenges like loneliness and stress.

Stanford is also in the early phases of a multi-year engagement with the JED Foundation, a prominent higher education mental health advocacy group.

A January 2022 CAPS-user survey found 92% said they were able to access CAPS services in a timely manner and with relative ease, Brubaker-Cole said. However, she acknowledged that not all students are similarly able to access CAPS. In response, changes have been made this fall to streamline how students new to CAPS can connect with them.

Thus far this quarter, CAPS has had same-day initial appointments available for students seeking care, Brubaker-Cole said, in contrast to wait times of around 12 days for initial appointments in week three of fall 2021.

CAPS always has same-day, on-call support available for crisis needs, she added, and further enhancements may roll out next year.

Faculty Senate student representative Gabriella Garcia expressed gratitude for the university’s continued support of students, but cited stories from resident advisors, who are often intermediaries for students and CAPS, of students waiting for weeks or months for appointments, or even going to the emergency room in order to obtain one.

Graduate Student Council Representative Yiqing Ding noted that a lot of mental stress on students is related to environmental concerns such as affordability.

The inaugural Diversity, Equity, and Inclusions (DEI) survey, launched as part of the IDEAL initiative last year, showed that advising impacts the well-being of both students and faculty, said Stacey Bent, vice provost for graduate education and postdoctoral affairs, and the Jagdeep and Roshni Singh Professor in the School of Engineering.

Faculty advisors have an outsized effect on the life and well-being of graduate students, particularly doctoral students, as students rely on them as supervisors, trainers, career coaches, and emotional support.

But new faculty feel unprepared for the challenging work of advising and mentoring, she continued, which can include informal responsibilities that impact their research progress. These issues also affect postdocs who are in vulnerable career positions, subject to power dynamics, and who may feel isolated due to a lack of community.

There needs to be a combination of consistent expectations around mentoring, support for faculty in meeting those expectations, and accountability, including acknowledgment for doing a good job, Bent said.

To help address these issues, the Faculty Senate approved a policy in 2019 requiring that all departments and programs have a faculty director of graduate studies who is responsible and accountable for student experiences.

Unusual among peer institutions, Stanford also requires that all faculty applications for promotion and advancement be accompanied by a full, or randomly selected, set of student evaluations, and the students’ experiences are weighted for consideration in the decisions.

However, the efforts are inconsistent across campus and insufficient, Bent said.

Bent asked senators to consider, “What can we require of faculty in meeting their expectations to their trainees, and in cultivating a climate of empathetic leadership and engagement? And what responsibility should Stanford have in protecting students and postdocs from unhealthy situations?”

In order to help cultivate undergraduate resilience, the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education (VPUE) has embarked on several projects this year centering on first-generation, low-income students, underrepresented minorities, and others who are particularly affected by mental health issues, said Elaine Treharne, VPUE senior associate vice provost, Roberta Bowman Denning Professor, and professor, by courtesy, of German studies and of comparative literature.

“Something to bear in mind that we’re thinking about in VPUE is that this is not back to normal, we are not back to normal. We all know that,” Treharne said. “It’s incumbent on us to set new expectations about this new world that we are positioning ourselves in.”

This means normalizing mental health, she said, and balancing academic requirements with student mental health needs to attain a “flourishing, supportive, and intellectually vibrant campus environment in which our students can thrive.”

In memory

Senators also heard memorial resolutions for three professor emeriti of mechanical engineering:

  • James Adams, an expert in creativity and product design, died Jan. 15, 2022, at age 87.
  • Robert McKim, 95, was also co-founder of Stanford’s Product Design program. He died July 17, 2022.
  • Douglass Wilde was an expert in industrial optimization and psychological underpinnings of exceptional teams. He died Oct. 28, 2021, at age 92.