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Healthy Academics Toolkit provides resources for supporting student mental health and well-being

The Healthy Academics Initiative was developed by University Health Services (UHS) Prevention and Campus Health Initiatives in partnership with colleagues across campus. The initiative aims to equip faculty, instructional staff, TAs, and advisors with the knowledge, skills, and resources to create academic environments where students can thrive. Recently, the Healthy Academics Initiative was selected as a finalist for the 2021 POD Innovation Award, which recognizes creative ideas for educational development. 

One part of this initiative is the Healthy Academics Toolkit, a data-driven tool to support a shift in policies, practices, and pedagogies in classrooms, research labs, and advising offices. The toolkit offers an interactive data visualization for instructors to understand the unique needs of the student populations they serve. Data are linked to specific strategies and resources that can be implemented in learning environments to proactively support the health and well-being of undergraduate and graduate students.  

At UW-Madison, students indicated that in the past year they were more likely to turn to their instructors for support related to mental health concerns than their peers. Furthermore, a recent multi-university survey  found that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty have been more engaged with student mental health issues, with 80 percent of respondents reporting they communicated with students one-on-one on the phone, video, or email about mental health and well-being during the past year. Yet at the same time, some faculty report feeling unprepared to address this increased need and navigate the emotional labor involved. This highlights the importance of providing faculty with the training and resources to support students’ mental health and well-being as an ongoing and integral component of teaching and learning.  

“It is our hope that the resources and strategies embedded within the Toolkit can be engrained into the culture and practices of our academic environments to cultivate a more equitably healthy campus” says Claire Barrett, UHS Healthy Academics Manager and trained psychologist. 

UW-Madison students who hold one or more marginalized identities are more likely to report a lower sense of belonging, decreased levels of flourishing, and higher rates of mental health concerns. Likewise, students of color are already at increased risk for psychological distress due to issues of racism, while at the same time being less likely to seek mental health treatment.  The learning environment is a crucial setting for creating an equitably healthy campus that fosters well-being through classroom culture, trauma-informed practices, advisor relationships, decreased stigma regarding mental health issues, and instructor knowledge and skill to support students in distress. 

“The Healthy Academics Toolkit is an important resource for faculty that is both informative and interactive and helps illuminate the link between academic environments and well-being. The interactive data visualizations are fun to play with, while conveying important results from (among other sources) The Healthy Minds Study,” said Morton Gernsbacher, Vilas Professor and the Sir Frederic C. Bartlett Professor of Psychology. “The Health-Promoting Strategies & Resources page provides nearly a dozen recommendations for strategies and policies, including valuable templates for syllabus statements.” 

Instructor support of students is never intended to replace professional, clinical support that is needed by students; rather, is integral to creating a culture of care across campus. Resources available through the Healthy Academics Toolkit are intended to increase instructors’ knowledge and confidence with responding to students in distress and creating conditions where all students can thrive at UW-Madison.  

To further support mental health, UHS Prevention and Campus Health Initiatives has also developed a new suicide prevention training for UW-Madison faculty and staff that will be available soon. The interactive, asynchronous training was developed in response to faculty- and staff-identified needs. It covers skill-based topics such as responding to students in distress and referring students to campus resources. UHS Mental Health Services offers ongoing consultation for instructors who may have questions regarding how best to support a student, when to involve other professionals, or how best to get a student connected with services. Crisis consultation services are available for students 24/7 hours a day by calling the UHS Crisis Line at 608-265-5600 (option 9).