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Opinion: Should university instructors disclose mental health conditions? It's complicated

The pandemic has introduced a new context for university instructors navigating boundaries and responsibilities around their students’ and their own well-being and mental health
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For instructors living with mental illness, the need to consider whether or not to disclose their own mental health conditions to students has become a pressing issue.

The onset of what some psychologists suggest is a mental health “parallel pandemic” during COVID-19 has created new questions about how post-secondary instructors address mental health in their classrooms.

The negative impact of the pandemic on mental health in Canada is clear: significant levels of self-reported anxiety have been found in 36 per cent of Canadians aged 15-34, and increased levels of self-reported anxiety and depression have been found among post-secondary students accessing mental health supports at counselling centres across numerous Canadian campuses.

For instructors living with mental illness, the need to consider whether or not to disclose their own mental health conditions to students has become a pressing issue.

A political or moral responsibility?

Some instructors feel that mental illness disclosure in academic settings is a political and moral responsibility. Disclosures by instructors can be a means to show support for students with mental health conditions that might have worsened as a result of the pandemic. Disclosures can also promote authenticity in the classroom, and provide an opportunity to assist students with mental health challenges or direct them to relevant campus resources.

However, studies on the rates and experiences of mental illness among instructors, as well as how mental health disclosures impact students, are relatively new.

Demands in the pandemic

The pandemic continues to present unique demands for post-secondary instructors. These include pivoting to deliver rigorous distance education while managing family obligations, the uncertainty of short-term contracts and research interruptions.

In addition, instructors are navigating boundaries and responsibilities around their students’ well-being, which may surface directly if students ask for help, or indirectly when students are struggling academically.

Based on our research team’s personal experiences, those instructors who have disclosed their mental health status have also felt varying levels of support from colleagues and university administration. While some faculty feel that they have been well supported, with colleagues and leadership going “above and beyond,” others have commented on the perceived absence of authentic concern and care from leadership and peers as they struggle with mental health challenges exacerbated by the pandemic.

Stigma, symptoms, relevance, supports

The choice about whether or not to share a personal mental illness story with a class of students, or to disclose a mental health condition to colleagues or managers includes a number of complex factors: perceived or real stigma concerning mental health conditions, the nature of one’s prognosis, the manifestation of symptoms, the relevance to others and the presence of social supports.

Mental health disclosures can have a number of positive outcomes, including greater access to social supports and accommodations in the workplace. However, a recent graduate thesis that asked students to offer impressions about hypothetical scenarios found that students rated instructors’ competence and character lower when instructors disclosed their mental illness in their syllabi. The same study suggested higher empathy and relatability for instructors experiencing mental illness, despite perceptions of diminished leadership capacity.

As this field of research remains in its infancy, the relationship between instructor mental illness disclosure and various student and teacher outcomes is unclear.

Academic Mental Illness Project

Our Academic Mental Illness Project (AMIP) was developed by an interdisciplinary group of post-secondary instructors (from psychology, education, agriculture, history, kinesiology, and digital learning) at the University of Saskatchewan to further explore these questions.

Prior to the pandemic, several AMIP instructors regularly disclosed their own mental illnesses to students as a way of normalizing mental health challenges. Most remember receiving warnings or negative feedback from other colleagues about these disclosures, citing how they may impact their future career opportunities.

In some cases, instructors also worried that a combination of disclosing their mental health conditions and other parts of their identity, such as their sexual orientation or gender identity, might further negatively affect the way that students perceived them.

At the same time, some members of our group routinely received positive feedback from students upon disclosing their mental health conditions, including emails from students thanking us for modelling how to navigate mental health challenges.

During the pandemic, as mental health conditions were pushed to the forefront of many student-instructor interactions, disclosing instructors in our group received markedly more requests from students seeking help or advice in accessing local mental health services.

Further questions

Given the changing reality of the pandemic and the continuous stigma surrounding mental illness, it is important to explore the potential benefits and risks that might accrue to instructors and students involved in classroom disclosure experiences.

We wonder, for example, how serving as a first point of contact for distressed students may affect the mental health of instructors living with mental illness and how they manage the risk of compassion fatigue.

We are currently exploring how instructors’ disclosures of their mental health conditions shape student attitudes toward mental illness, influence student perceptions (like the instructor’s competence, warmth or approachability, capacity to inspire or motivate, and so on) and impact student outcomes — such as the likelihood of seeking support from the instructor, or intending to take additional courses.

We are also investigating how mental illness is woven into the teaching practice and academic experiences of disclosing instructors. By gaining an in-depth understanding of student and instructor experiences, we hope to uncover how instructor disclosures unfold in the lives of those involved and impact stigma and communication about mental illness on campus.

The Conversation

Jan M Gelech has received funding from Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching and Learning and the University of Saskatchewan.

Simonne Horwitz receives funding from SSHRC.

Ana Carolina de Barros, Jenn Bergen, Shannon Forrester, and Vicki Squires do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.