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‘We're humans as well’: Faculty feels weight of supporting student mental health

Dr. Keely A. Muscatell stood in her sunlit office on Sept. 8, 2023.

Almost 200 UNC faculty members signed a letter calling on Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Chris Clemens to create a mental health task force for graduate students in the aftermath of last month’s campus shooting.

“We hear directly from many students who we supervise in laboratories, in research, and in classrooms that they are struggling — psychologically, physically, financially, and academically,” the letter said.

Faculty who signed the letter offered support for graduate student mental health, and said, “We are prepared to help.” 

Though many professors, like those who signed the letter, view caring for their students’ mental health as part of their responsibility, they also feel the weight of that care. 

“We're humans as well,” psychology and neuroscience assistant professor Keely Muscatell, who was the first signee on the letter, said. “And we do feel the impacts of so many of these things.”

Angel Hsu, an assistant professor of public policy, said she feels the burdens of her students, specifically students of color who come to her as a “safe space to confide in.” 

A ‘potential blind spot’

Both Muscatell and Hsu said the COVID-19 pandemic and the Aug. 28 campus shooting have had significant impacts on their own mental health.

“It’s really just exhausting to always be leading and teaching and trying to move research forward under these really difficult circumstances,” Muscatell said. 

They said they feel pressure to persevere and prioritize the well-being of their students throughout these obstacles.

Muscatell described faculty mental health as a “potential blind spot” for the University. 

She said faculty in her department will discuss their mental health together, but rarely in a way that is systematically productive. 

Muscatell added that it has been a “long few years” for her and other faculty members since the COVID-19 pandemic, noting a general feeling of weariness.

“We're the folks who are expected to kind of step up and carry the weight of things to some degree, or we're expected to lead – I've led a lab through a global pandemic, which was not something at all that was within my training,” she said.

Hsu echoed Muscatell’s sentiment, saying the pandemic weighed heavily on UNC faculty. She also said it was difficult to account for every individual student’s unique situation while pivoting between in-person, online and hybrid instruction.

“It is very demoralizing to have to teach online to a bunch of blank empty Zoom boxes and a lot of my colleagues expressed a huge impact to their mental health,” Hsu said.

The recent campus shooting further affected faculty well-being, she added.

Hsu said because she is a supervisor to graduate students and is of Chinese descent, she was especially moved by the death of associate professor Zijie Yan. 

Hsu is on research leave in Singapore. When she heard of Yan's death, she said she immediately went on WeChat to talk to friends and colleagues in the Chinese community of Chapel Hill and felt devastated.  

"He has two young daughters. I have two young kids," she said.

Muscatell said she has also been dealing with feelings of sadness, fear, anxiety and fatigue since the events of Aug. 28. 

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University resources

Hsu said she thinks faculty need to be able to feel comfortable disclosing their concerns among colleagues.

Edwin Fisher is a professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health and the global director of Peers for Progress, an international initiative to promote peer support and health. 

He said the lack of comfort felt among faculty may trace back to a “culture of perfection” and “toxic positivity” — although he said he thinks campus administration has done well to begin to promote a culture of care.

“I think we have good leadership from the chancellor and Vice Chancellor [Amy] Johnson in doing this, but organizational change is slow and I think we all need to work on promoting that greater sense of mutuality,” Fisher said. 

He said faculty have several resources when it comes to mental health. 

UNC’s employee health insurance covers many services, an option Muscatell said she has used. In addition to options covered by their health insurance, Fisher said faculty have access to the Employee Assistance Program and the University Ombuds Office.

The office offers free and voluntary services to students, faculty and staff to talk in confidence about any issue on campus. 

According to UNC’s Human Resources website, the Employee Assistance Program provides free, confidential counseling and resources to aid University employees and their families with their concerns.

Permanent employees and members of their household can receive three free counseling sessions per concern per year. The program also offers 24/7 support over the phone and online.

According to UNC Media Relations, if faculty have concerns over a student or employee who poses "an imminent threat to themselves or others" they should call 911 or UNC Police. 

If those concerns are not emergencies, Media Relations said they should contact the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office or their department's assigned Employee and Management Relations consultant. 

Hsu, who has been a professor at UNC since 2021, said she has not personally tried to use campus resources. 

She said she wants more training on how to foster a positive mental health environment in the classroom and in research and how to handle an active shooter threat.

“You want to be able to protect yourself and you want to be able to protect the students, but we literally don’t have any tools, and so I think definitely the University could do better on that,” Hsu said.