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Notes on Teaching and Learning

A Student’s Perspective: Mental Health Statements in Syllabi

December 9, 2021
ND Learning

This guest post is authored by Juliette Kelley, a Notre Dame senior and Student Government Co-Director of Health and Wellbeing.

As college students, we face a variety of challenges in our busy day-to-day lives, challenges that COVID-19 has only exacerbated: one survey conducted earlier this year found that 82% of college students continue to experience increased stress and anxiety, and in another, 65% reported having fair or poor mental health. It is clear that prioritizing mental health on college campuses is important. Since instructors are such an integral part of students’ day-to-day networks (even the “gatekeepers” of student mental health), they are in a key position to support student wellbeing.

One important way to help students feel supported is to include mental health statements in course syllabi. In classroom settings where my professors set an inclusive, understanding tone from day one in the classroom, it encourages me to prioritize my own mental health alongside my academics, a practice I will carry far beyond my four years at Notre Dame. Not only does this statement give me the permission to acknowledge when I need to take time for myself, it can also make a huge difference in actually reaching out for support when I need it: studies suggest that students who read welcoming syllabi with a mental health statement are more likely to reach out for help. 

Creating the space to discuss mental health issues can not only help students such as myself find the resources they need, but also destigmatize and normalize having these important conversations—a particularly significant outcome given that stigmas about counseling on college campuses are one of the primary reasons for a low rate of students utilizing campus mental health resources.

Further, by encouraging students to prioritize their well-being, these statements acknowledge that we as students have lives beyond our academic ones, and this support can create better results within the classroom. I have found that in classes where I feel supported by my professors, I am actually motivated to work harder since I understand that my instructors in those courses see me as a whole human being rather than just a name on a class roster. 

In the 2019-20 academic year, the Notre Dame Faculty Senate, in collaboration with representatives of Student Government and in consultation with the Division of Student Affairs, published a mental health statement that they hope to see in syllabi. Instructors should also feel free to add to this language with a few sentences to show that they care about their students’ well-being personally. 

Even if professors are hesitant to include an entire statement on their syllabi, I feel more supported and motivated in my classes when professors simply state that mental health is important to them or invite students to speak to them. Often, just providing a listening ear is enough to make a huge difference, and communicating that to students is crucial. 

Including this statement or similar language in syllabi takes little effort on behalf of instructors, but it can make a huge impact on each and every student. I hope to see statements like these in all of my syllabi going forward, knowing that it can help not only myself but also all of my peers by encouraging us to prioritize our mental health. These statements are an important first step to creating structural change on college campuses to create an environment that promotes health and well-being among both students and faculty alike.