Thinking about faculty mental health

While universities work to support students during the pandemic, some instructors face uncertainty and stress

Art by Kristen Frier

Art by Kristen Frier

For Kwantlen Polytechnic University psychology instructor Dr. Kristie Dukewich, the KPU return-to-campus process was hard to predict and plan around. 

The university was trying to adhere to the public health orders mandated by the provincial government for post-secondary institutions, but as the orders repeatedly changed, that meant KPU had to keep changing its own rules, and sometimes faculty members felt out of the loop.

While the university tried to figure out what in-person classes would be like, some faculty members felt confused while waiting for more concrete directions and expectations for the fall semester. 

At first, it wasn’t clear for Dukewich if there would be a return to in-person teaching or if masks would be mandatory, if vaccine cards would be required for classes, and what the university would expect from faculty members in general as KPU worked to implement repeatedly changing public health orders.

“We’ve had to [plan] for so many different possible scenarios that might come up,” Dukewich says. 

“I think that when you’re looking at your course, and you’re trying to make good pedagogical decisions while also recognizing that we could have to go back to teaching remotely at a moment’s notice, it’s exhausting.” 

The uncertainty made some faculty members nervous, she says, as many didn’t know how some of the rules would play out when they finally returned to campus to teach.

KPU does not require its faculty members, campus staff, or students to be vaccinated to be on campus or attend classes. However, anyone who wants to attend a non-essential activity on campus will need to show proof of two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. This also applies if they want to access the campus fitness centre or any indoor events.

At this point, Dukewich says she is starting to feel better about teaching in-person, and a calmness that wasn’t around a few months ago has crept in as she goes on with the semester. 

But there’s a fatigue that comes with the uncertainty around whether she will need to return to working from home in the future, and Dukewich has been focusing on making her courses flexible in case of a transition back to online learning. 

Some of the students she teaches just started university this semester, and they had to spend the last year of high school learning remotely, and she worries that some of them may feel less prepared for post-secondary school work.

“I think that unpredictability is tough on everybody,” she says

“I’m seeing my students struggling more this year than I did last year, actually.”

Throughout the pandemic, studies have shown that post-secondary student mental health has worsened, and that increasing numbers of students are reporting feeling depressed, anxious and stressed.

Dukewich says she’s had to put extra effort into helping her students catch up on their work, because she does not want them to feel like they are falling behind.

“It’s tough. It’s a lot of work and a lot of mental strain,” she says.

Dukewich says she hopes the spring semester will be different with more clear rules and communication from the provincial government, so KPU can prepare for the semester and any possible issues that may arise. 

She hopes the university can eventually make it to step four of the return to campus plan, which will allow for more events on campus and more in-person services being available.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a considerable impact on faculty members and their well-being, according to a report by U.S. education publication The Chronicle of Higher Education. In their survey, which acquired data from 1,122 professors in October of last year, 50 per cent of teachers reported they no longer found joy from teaching, and two-thirds of faculty members are more stressed than they were in 2019, an increase from just one-third the year before. 

Teachers are also dealing with personal problems as well as their students, and the support that institutions offer may not be meeting all of their needs. In order to figure out what mental health supports should be provided to faculty members, Dukewich suggests more thorough research into what works and what the resulting dose-response curve is.

The concept of dose-response curve is based on understanding the dosage needed for effective levels of recovery, and understanding the relationship between 50 per cent treatment and 100 per cent treatment.

“There’s a lot of evidence to show that talk-based therapy is really effective at helping to treat mental health issues,” Dukewich says.

To help with faculty mental health support, KPU offers assistance through Homewood Health mental health and addiction services, where they can get short-term assistance. 

“They’re really focused on ‘what’s the problem right now, and how can we get you back to work?’” says Dukewich.

“It’s something the employer has opted to provide…. My personal opinion is that it’s woefully inadequate to cover what faculty are experiencing right now.”

According to the Kwantlen Faculty Association mental health resource page, in a calendar year, KPU faculty can access up to $275 to cover seeing a psychologist. As the British Columbia Psychological Association lists it, the average cost of one psychotherapy session is $225 for a one-hour session.

Dukewich says that psychotherapy usually has patients experiencing recovery after 12 to 18 therapy sessions.

“I feel like that should be a standard, we should have enough benefits to get as close to 18 sessions per annum,” says Dukewich. 

“I don’t think it will get there any time soon.”

KPU also offers an employee and family assistance program for faculty members. In an emailed statement to The Runner, Catherine Dube, director of people services, says the program gives members access to “confidential counselling, individualized online cognitive behavioural therapy and access to a suite of online resources.”

In the statement, Dube added that faculty members are encouraged by the university to use the resources that are offered through the employee and family assistance program, and to talk to the health and benefits specialists and learn about the other services provided.

The KPU human resources department also offers mental health e-courses, workshops, and webinars which focus on mental health.

In an emailed statement to The Runner, KPU director of learning technologies and educational development, Leann Waddington, wrote that when it comes to adjusting to the technological aspects of teaching in-person and online, extra educational consultants and technology support staff are provided to help throughout the semester.

Faculty members who want access to confidential mental health resources and support in the community can also reach out to the Kwantlen Faculty Association for assistance.

Dukewich says she still feels that there could be better options and coverage for faculty members, and if the available benefits cannot cover the amount of sessions they need, Dukewich worries that some may have to pay out of pocket.

“We’re seeing a lot of faculty taking leaves of absence and the cost of finding and onboarding new faculty. It’s probably a better use of administration money to actually pay for benefits,” she says.

On top of having better access to talk therapy, it’s important for people to like their therapists as that plays an important part in how much they choose to share. If KPU decides to provide faculty members with expanded coverage for therapy, Dukewich says faculty should be given options, and be able to switch their therapists if they don’t feel comfortable.

“Mental health is health. I think it’s unreasonable, illogical, that employers get it as an optional benefit,” she says.

“It’s not just KPU, this is sort of a provincial, or even federal problem — that our government does not see mental health in the same way as they see health.”

The university has acknowledged and worked to help with the struggles faculty members are faced with, but Dukewich says there is a disparity between the amount of emails reminding faculty about resources for students, and reminders about resources for faculty mental health, and an equal amount of focus on both would be helpful.

“Your mental health is a key part of overall health and well-being,” she says.

“I think it’s really bad that faculty are potentially choosing not to see a therapist because they can’t afford it, and that just feels so morally wrong to me.”