Just before Winter Break, faculty received an email from Academic Affairs stating that, "the Florida Board of Governors asked that all students, faculty, and staff in the [State University System] receive some form of training regarding signs of psychological distress and techniques for referring at-risk students to counseling services. To comply with this directive, and as a way to contribute to the success and well-being of our students, you are asked to complete the Lifeskills Module, Kognito: At-Risk for Faculty & Staff." In this issue, we look at the issue of mental health of students, and at this module.
The USF Chapter of the United Faculty of Florida will meet tomorrow Friday at noon at the Village Inn on 11302 N 30th Street in Tampa. Lunch is on us. On the agenda: the proposal of the Election Committee, the At-Risk Training program, and the recruitment campaign. Come and check us out.
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Maybe higher education became more observant, maybe expanding the pool of prospective students has included more students with problems, or maybe stresses in contemporary society has affected more students than in the past. For whatever reason, student wellbeing has become a major issue. Perhaps as many as half of all students experience at least intermittent food insecurity, perhaps a seventh of all four-year students experience homelessnessat some time during their matriculation, and about a tenth of all student debt is in arrears. Perhaps it is not surprising that the National Alliance on Mental Illness claimed that a fourth of all students suffered from a mental illness, the major ones being depression, anxiety, suicide, eating disorders, and addiction.
And there's a growing feeling that colleges and universities should do something about this. After two students at Truman State University committed suicide, their parents sued the university. In 2018, a Massachusetts court ruled that parents of students who commit suicide may sue the institutions the students attended; in particular, the Court ruled that "...a university has ... a ... duty to take reasonable measures ..." if a student has attempted suicide in the past or states "... plans or intentions to commit suicide." Noting that faculty are generally non-clinicians, the Court said that the issue was foreseeability. As a matter of context, one study concluded that perhaps one-fifth of all college students considered suicide at some point, so simply as a matter of scale, the stakes are high.
These problems do not afflict only undergraduates: one recent study indicated that many graduate students suffer from anxiety or depression.
Opinion is divided on what faculty can do. Some engineering faculty wrote that a faculty member should be a friend at the front of the room and the president of the American Council on Education and the president of the Council of Graduate Schools wrote that responsibility for student mental health extends beyond the counseling center, while an English professor warned that there are limits to what a university can do. Meanwhile, as college presidents pioritize mental health, a number of states are defunding student mental health programs. Perhaps this is why some institutions are simply handing out pills.
Last year, wheels turned in Florida's Department of Education. The State University System Board had created a Drugs, Alcohol and Mental Health Task Force, which last August presented its Final Report to the Board of Governors. (This effort extended to secondary schools, as the Commissioner of Education Announces Enhanced Mental Health Requirements for Florida Schools.)
Last December 6, USF Academic Affairs sent an email to faculty and staff saying the State University System Board of Governors had decided that all faculty and staff receive "some form of training regarding signs of psychological distress and techniques for referring at-risk students to counseling services." The training would be provided by Kognito.com, which offers to "Improve student mental health, retention, and academic performance," using "role-play simulations." Kognito proudly lists four higher education clients: California Community Colleges, Johns Hopkins, the University of New Hampshire, and USF, and the Final Report of the Drugs, Alcohol and Mental Health Task Force specifies Kognito. The letter from Academic Affairs asked (!) that faculty and staff complete the training by Monday, which was three days ago. (If you haven't done the training yet, the link is https://usf.kognito.com/.)
The training was like one of those video games in which you are to navigate a maze. (Actually, three successive little mazes.) Those of you who have taken the training will recall an animated teacher talking to an animated student. Each move consists of choosing one of several options for the teacher to proceed (e.g. asking the student how (s)he feels versus asking the student what happened versus asking the student what's wrong), and then the teacher takes the option chosen (unless it is a bad option, in which case the game gives a scold) and the student responds. The result is rather like navigating a maze, choosing the right option at each fork, until one reaches the goal, which is to send or take the student to a counselor. The training concludes with a Content Summary.
This may sound a bit like Snoopy's advice column: no matter what the query, the advice was to take the dog to the vet. But that may be the point: teachers are not counselors, and a student who needs counseling probably should go to the Counseling Center.
That said, the training seems inferior from a genuine role-playing game, with one faculty member playing teacher and the other playing a student in the presence of a facilitator - followed by a discussion of how the role-playing went. (Of course, that would require a lot of time from faculty and the expense of getting facilitators; this training was a lot cheaper in many ways.) So what issues might have come up in the post-role-playing?
First of all, the conversations were rather accelerated. This is probably a result of having to get through three conversations in 45 minutes (the time that Kognito says the training requires). In real life, conversations of this sort are likely to be more equivocal and protracted, along with equivocal and protracted outcomes. This sort of thing requires skills that most of us have no real training for (we achieved mastery in an academic field, not competence in referring students to counseling - and in actually getting them to go). For example, the training only touched on the stigma associated with counseling - in fact, some students may be offended by the subject. This conversation can be quite tricky.
Second, the question of whether to refer (or escort (!)) a student to counseling depends on the teacher's perception of the student. As example of how this can go wrong, after the Columbine shootings there was something of a moral panic over high school students dressing in the "Goth" style. Even experts - like Kognito's writers - can be bitten by prejudices. For example, in one of the conversations, the teacher asks the student what he plans to do after graduation, and the student mentions construction. That is not a problem: we need people who build things, and many builders quite rightly feel fulfilled by their work. The reason why the student's answer would be an indication of depression is (somewhat circularly) because the student was evidently resigned by it.
And there's the elephant in the room that the training didn't address at all: students may be anxious, depressed, stressed, or worse because of things happening in their lives. Sometimes a faculty member can refer the student to a place that can provide assistance (e.g. if the student needs financial assistance, to the Office of Financial Aid, or if they are going hungry, to the Food Bank). But sometimes the problem is something USF cannot help with, and what the counseling office could provide are referrals to off-campus organizations that might be able to help - and also to provide ways to cope.
But the elephant may have legal ramifications. Suppose that it came out during the conversation that the student was being sexually harassed (or, more awkward, was harassing someone). We are required to report serous accounts of harassment, which is why many faculty warn in their syllabi (or at least at the beginning of conversations of this sort) that they are required to report certain kinds of misconduct. A warning makes the conversation clearly official to the student, who may be more reticent as a result. And of course, not warning the student that faculty have to report such misconduct could be taken by the student as bad faith. Being neither a clinician nor a lawyer, a faculty member can wind up in deep water.
This is not the only legal concern. A faculty member who takes the training receives a certificate; what competence does that certificate certify? Is a faculty member liable for what (s)he says to a student? If the faculty member followed the outline in this training, is that a defense if something subsequently goes wrong? Under what conditions will the Administration proceed against a faculty member for failing to follow the training in a real-life situation? Will the Administration proceed against a faculty member who follows the training but the outcome is still bad? And if a bad outcome winds up in court - and some of the most serious cases do wind up in court - will the Administration stand by the faculty member?
(At this point UFF would like to remind faculty and professionals that one of the benefits of union membership is a million dollar insurance policy for lawsuits on the job. But as union dues pay for that insurance, it is for union members only.)
And seeing a new contract is being bargained, there are contractual questions. Kognito is keeping track of who took the training, so: is this training part of the employee's assignment? If so, what FTE is assigned to it. If not, what is it? And if not, what happens to an employee who doesn't take it? UFF is pursuing answers to these questions.
Meanwhile, here are some resources for students who need help:.
One thing that the training did not address is preparation for a student whom a faculty has called into her office. It would be wise to think in advance about what one is going to say (and this may involve reviewing Kognito's cheat sheet). In addition, if the situation is particularly difficult - if the student appears seriously troubled or troubling (or even dangerous), it may be wise to seek advice in advance. As in many other aspects of teaching, success often depends on preparation.
Kognito's At-Risk module is on the agenda for tomorrow's chapter meeting. Come and check us out.
Chapter Meeting tomorrow Friday, January 17, at noon, in the Village Inn on 11302 N 30th Street in Tampa.
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