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Admin to Professors: Put Student's Mental Health Before Assignments on Wellness Days

By Zachary Gibbs | March 25, 2021

UAlbany administrators and health professionals encouraged faculty to refrain from scheduling assignment due dates on “wellbeing days” or the day after in order to stem what they say is a rising tide of student stress exacerbated by the pandemic and remote learning.

"I would really strongly encourage all members of the university to consider this a day for students, and many of us, to take a break from some of the stress of academics," Dr. Karen Sokolowski, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services, told a panel of senior staff within Student Affairs at a discussion on mental health last week.

Instead of a Spring Break this semester, the university administration has scheduled four “wellbeing” days throughout the academic period in an effort to limit travel and the spread of coronavirus.

But, according to student feedback from the March Wellness Wednesday, many professors assigned work on wellness days. "Students felt the need to continue engaging in academic work," said Vice President Dr. Michael Christakis. "Scheduling wellbeing days on Tuesdays and Wednesdays was done deliberately to try to limit travel, though students have expressed that it's not ideal."

The impact of losing a day off was felt by students whether they studied synchronously or asynchronously or a combination of the two.

“I don’t have the luxury to skip a day in the middle of a week,” said Max Weissman, who takes both synchronous and asynchronous courses. He said it takes him longer to do asynchronous work because he finds he has to “teach myself.”

The next wellness break, called "Take a Break Tuesday", is April 6th. CAPS and several other partnering departments on campus will offer virtual and in-person programming as well as grab-and-go kits with materials to help students manage stress, according to the panelists.

A survey conducted by the university last fall shows that a majority of students perceive remote learning to have provided an increased course load compared to an in-person environment.

"Our students of color, excluding students who identify as Asian or Asian American, are experiencing more distress than our white students," said Dr. Dolores Cimini, Director of the Center for Behavioral Health Promotion, told the panel. "And, our LGBTQ+ students and students identifying as gender non-conforming are experiencing the most distress compared to others."

In response to the rising mental health crisis, CAPS services have adapted to the virtual format and have kept wait times low for appointments, according to Sokolowski. The Middle Earth hotline, originally planned to be suspended during the pandemic but was saved by student volunteers, placed calls to over 11,000 students to link them with life-saving services if requested.

"Since the pandemic’s onset last March, we've continued to monitor the growing demand among students struggling with mental health, including anxiety and depression, related to the pandemic," Vice President Dr. Michael Christakis told the panel.

Christakis, however, did say university has seen some bright spots. The university has provided more tele-counseling options, which he said has proven effective in providing clinical services to students.

“In many respects the pandemic has reduced the stigma of needing and getting mental health support because of how much we're all talking about it on campus," he added.

UAlbany President Dr. Havidán Rodríguez, who spoke at the panel, said that the past year “has taken an in measurable toll.”

“We talk a lot about collective impact of the pandemic on our campus and our institutions and on our communities,“ he said, “but we need to make sure that this does not overshadow the impact on individuals, many of whom may be suffering in isolation.”

He added that there is optimism in the near future with the rollout of several vaccines.

Students and faculty can schedule an appointment with Counseling and Psychological Services by calling 518-442-5800.

Students can contact Middle Earth Peer Assistance Hotline by calling 518-442-5777.


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