The Mental Health Crisis Among Faculty and College Staff | NEA – National Education Association

The fact that college students have growing mental-health needs, especially around depression and anxiety, isn’t unknown. What’s less understood are the mental health needs of faculty and staff.
“The system assumes that we should be old enough, experienced enough, and tough enough…” but being a faculty member “has become one of the most stressful jobs,” writes science professor Hilal Lashuel, in a 2020 article about faculty mental health.
“Pressure, stress and anxiety frequently translate into sleep deprivation, irritability and isolation,” he writes. “Chronic stress is also a major risk factor for developing many psychiatric and cardiovascular disorders: I have come to learn this firsthand after suffering two heart attacks during the past three years.”
In fact, studies show that the mental-health needs of students and faculty and staff are roughly equivalent—and all need support from their institutions. Fortunately, it’s possible to demand that support through faculty and staff unions. The answers aren’t just about more mental-health care. They’re also about improving workload and pay, and making sure employees are respected by their managers, say union members.
Let’s get serious: educators are burned out,” wrote Sean McCandless, Bruce McDonald, and Sara Rinfret, in Inside Higher Ed last summer. “Like many workers who struggle with low pay, lack of advancement opportunities and feeling disrespected, higher education faculty members struggle to keep it together because of exhaustion and the lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
McCandless and his colleagues surveyed faculty last year and found that 33 percent are “often” or “always” physically exhausted; 38 percent are emotionally exhausted; 40 percent are worn out. And more than half of those surveyed say they feel that way every day.
And it’s not just faculty. The mental health of non-teaching staff also is affected by workload, lack of employees, and instability, a 2023 Brazilian study found.
This kind of unchecked, unrelenting stress can lead to depression and anxiety—and a recent survey of faculty, staff, and students at a Midwestern university shows that all of these issues are prevalent among all of these groups.
Often, it falls to faculty and staff—who may be untrained and overwhelmed—to respond to students with mental-health needs. “Professors feel a responsibility toward students who are suffering,” according to a 2021 post-Covid report from Boston University, the Mary Christie Foundation, and the Healthy Minds Network.
But faculty often have the same health challenges as students—nearly a third of surveyed professors reported having symptoms of depression—and their support for students’ unmet needs can be exacerbating. Two in 10 agreed that “supporting students in mental or emotional distress has taken a toll on their own mental health.”
This is worse for women faculty: 27 percent of women faculty and 32 percent of trans or non-binary professors said that this kind of “service to students” had taken a psychological toll on them, compared to 13 percent of male professors.
The survey also found that half of faculty said their institutions should do more to support the mental well-being of faculty.
At the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst, employees can access short-term psychotherapy through the university’s Employee Counseling and Consultation Office (ECCO), which is staffed and run by union members.
“We’re lucky to have in-house employee counseling. A lot of colleges have a company that can connect you to free sessions, which is better than nothing — it can be a lifesaver—but it’s better for us to be on campus and be part of the culture,” says Corey Griffin, director of ECCO and NEA Higher Ed member.
ECCO’s primary work is around counseling faculty and staff. Faculty seeking tenure, staff struggling with increasing workload, or employees dealing with family issues—these are stressed-out people who will benefit from a few sessions with an on-campus psychologist who “gets” their issues. “There is a particular stress in being a faculty member, and we understand that,” says Griffin.
Since the pandemic, the number or volume of ECCO visits haven’t changed much, but “I do get the sense people are under more emotional strain,” says Griffin.
“We are hearing more faculty who describe feeling overloaded by student need. A lot is expected of faculty—and if you go to a meeting about student need, many of the ideas are like ‘let’s have professors do this or that…’” says Griffin, who notes that the burden of supporting students in need also falls disproportionately to women. “And some faculty are great at it and it’s a satisfying part of their job to help students in that way, but for others it feels like a great burden.”
Recently, UMass Amherst committed to the Okanagan Charter, a network of universities working to promote health. It’s a project with huge potential—and the unions are committed to making sure rank-and-file members have a voice in it, said Casey Krone, who works as the research coordinator in the university’s honor college and also runs the staff union’s health and safety committee.
“Mental health is definitely, or will be, a big piece of the Okanagan Charter on campus, and certainly some of that will be student focused but it also will be faculty and staff focused,” says Krone. “It’s an opportunity to do this work around people’s mental health for all of our community members.”
More mental-health training for faculty and staff to be able to assist students would be helpful to students—and to the faculty and staff who feel burned out by this work, experts suggest.
But union members also point to other ways that college administrators can help. Are workloads reasonable? Are vacant positions filled? Are managers supportive of their employees? Are employees respected and fairly paid? “You have to think about mental wellbeing as being bigger than mental healthcare,” says Griffin. “When you think about what makes people happy at work, it’s things like having a voice in decisions. It’s being respected. It’s feeling well compensated.”
The lowest-paid employees in Krone’s staff union are paid about $42,000 a year, which is about half of a living wage for an adult with one child living in Amherst, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator. “I have pointed out, and I think people understand this, that the single greatest thing we could do to alleviate people’s mental health issues is pay them a living wage,” says Krone. “If you’re not at a basic level of economic security, you have more anxiety, more mental illness. It just makes everything worse.”
This also makes sense to Griffin. “When people try to problem solve about employee wellbeing,” says Griffin, “sometimes they think too much about mental healthcare and not enough about whether management is good, or if workload if reasonable, and if they speak up, are they going to be heard?”
When it comes to these matters, the union is hugely influential through its power at the bargaining table. Unions also help connect workers to each other, Krone points out—and those kinds of “meaningful connections” among people who share common goals and mutual respect help alleviate social isolation. “There’s a real hunger from people, coming out of the pandemic. They want to connect. They realize how important it is,” he says. “One thing we can do [as a union] is create those opportunities.”


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