First ‘Difficult Dialogues’ session highlights college mental health crisis, how faculty can respond

The first "Difficult Dialogues" session aimed to educate faculty on how they can help struggling students. (File photo by Hannah Greer | Collegian Media Group)

Dr. Kodee Walls, licensed psychologist from K-State Counseling Services, said there’s a “mental health crisis on college campuses” in her presentation “Mental Health in the Classroom: An Important Dialogue.”

The presentation was part of the first session of “Difficult Dialogues,” a discussion series to provide faculty with training on how to handle difficult situations. The Dow Center for Multicultural and Community Studies partnered with the K-State Teaching and Learning Center to host this series over the course of the 2019-2020 school year.

“The initiative was designed primarily for faculty and staff to learn some techniques and skills for engaging and facilitating difficult dialogues when they may come up,” Bryan Samuel, chief diversity and inclusion officer, said. “I’m not sure how many students know that we are doing this, but I think it’s important for students to know that we are concerned and making every effort to leverage educational opportunities to engage and speak on these different things when they do come up.”

Samuel said he hopes the series will enable faculty who regularly interact with students to gain the skills and background they need to speak confidently about “difficult dialogues.”

Thursday’s presentation focused on what faculty can do in response to the rising prevalence of mental health concerns facing college students.

“Across the country, universities are seeing a rise in concerning mental health statistics for students,” Walls said. “At K-State Counseling Services, more students are seeking services than ever before with more chronic mental health concerns.”

Those numbers are even higher for students of intersecting identities, Walls said. LGBTQ+ students and students of color report higher rates of anxiousness coming into college as well as other mental health concerns than the average population.

At K-State, there are some groups who struggle to gain access to on-campus mental health resources.

“All of my graduate students are international,” Eleanor Sayre, associate professor of physics, said. “Many of them feel as if Counseling Services is aimed at domestic and undergraduate students.”

Walls said it’s likely that international students are not adequately informed of K-State’s mental health resources. This awareness can be improved starting with faculty, Walls said.

Walls listed the identification of potential mental health concerns as well as knowledge of resources available as ways faculty can positively impact students’ mental wellbeing.

Walls said another important step for many faculty members is to realize when a situation impacting a student is out of their control and should be referred to Counseling Services.

Faculty asked questions about what boundaries they should recognize when interacting with students facing mental health concerns and share stories of what has and hasn’t worked so far in their experiences.

Walls urged K-State faculty to defer struggling students to Counseling Services in a crisis situation.

“[Counseling Services] are the competent care providers,” Walls said, “but we also need to, as a whole unit and university, know things we can do to intervene for students.”

Samuel said he hopes the first “Difficult Dialogues” session will pave the way for more open and progressive discussion about various topics.

“I want to see more meaningful engagement like what we had here for the first session,” Samuel said. “I would love to see a rippling of the utilizing of the information that comes out of these sessions and an overall elevated sense of consciousness and awareness of these issues.”

The next “Difficult Dialogues” session will be Nov. 12 and will aim to get faculty comfortable confronting difficult conversations through role play.