According to this report, students are confiding in Faculty about mental health struggles, particularly in the last year around COVID, and questions continue to arise around how to help students who have. In my discussions with Faculty around both UDL and accommodation planning, mental health disabilities come up frequently. Absences, episodic symptoms that see students “off the radar”, and periods of emotional distress leave compassionate instructors wondering about the best way to help. The same compassionate instructors are already implementing features of Universal Design for Learning; being keenly aware that flexibility is helpful, instructors offer options such as assignment extensions and alternatives to presentations.
In this blog post, I am sharing what I hope will be helpful considerations in working with students who are struggling with mental health, and reorganize some assumptions that can be of assistance in designing curriculum from a UDL perspective.
Mental health diagnoses in late adolescence and early adulthood are often emergent. For many students who are struggling with mental health, a diagnosis or potential diagnosis is new. And because the diagnosis is new, it often feels foreign or weird. The diagnosis may not fit right and some students have described that they have to recognize themselves as a new person altogether. This is important because amid trips to hospitals and doctors and new medications, students can feel lost, confused, even unrecognizable. Feeling lost and confused in turn, can mean that students have trouble advocating for themselves, showing up, knowing what they need, and participating in making plans.
How UDL helps: A structured course with clear guidelines, timelines, alternatives and expectations allows a student to find solidness – in a sea of questions around who am I, is this real, and what now?, courses are often a stable, consistent line of reason. A well planned course with clear parameters gives all students the ability to create goals and plan; for students with emergent mental health struggles, I have seen universally designed courses be a welcome distraction and intellectual oasis.
It is helpful to understand mental health as emotional distress. There are different explanations of mental health that range from medical, psychobiological, genetic, contextual, and existential. When we work with students who describe themselves as having mental health difficulties/disorders/diagnoses, it is helpful to understand that in this moment, in this course, in this setting, and in response to the particular set of circumstances happening now (see my previous post on Contextualism), the student is feeling distressed and we can play an important supportive role. What role can instructors play? Instructors can play a reactive role by supporting the student and referring out to other campus supports, but design can play a proactive role so that accessibility is maximized, assessment rationales are clear, and helpful parameters for participation are explicit.
How UDL helps: In this talk by Dr. Esther Murphy, she describes UDL practices as supporting mental health by promoting the system of campus supports (e.g., Counselling, Accessibility Services, Financial Aid, tutoring support) up front, as part of the syllabus design, framing mental health support as an aspect of pedagogy. Simply by virtue of talking about mental health support as a means of engagement in course design, Dr. Murphy points out that UDL promotes mental health support as shared responsibility. Inclusive practices reduce the emotional distress when they are proactively designed because there can be full reliance upon design features instead of “patchy”, ad hoc attempts to address accessibility.
Become familiar with trauma-aware practices and move beyond. In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the value of understanding trauma as a lens on student mental health support was elaborated. Like Dr. Murphy, the author and contributors to the article beseech decision-makers to support holistic approaches to supporting student mental health. One prong of the holistic approach is helping staff and faculty understand trauma in terms of the impacts it has on emotion regulation, the narrowing of the experiential field, memory, self-esteem, and in turn, escalating and pressing fears of stigma which only serve to escalate emotional distress. “I am calling for higher education to cultivate our moral imagination where every student is seen, where we invest in the well-being of the whole student, and where we ground all of our work in an ethics of care.” Beyond trauma aware work, we can take steps as instructors to proactively plan pedagogy that is aimed towards the development of human beings over content delivery. Moral imagination can mean normalization and acceptance, in meeting the darkness together, and having the confidence that sticking together means taking the sting out of the isolation that is so poignant for our struggling students. These words, far from banal reassurance, mean that we acknowledge our shared vulnerability and participate in education as a collective meaning-making.
How UDL helps: The UDL framework encompasses engagement. Engagement can mean different things to different people such as grabbing attention or maintaining focus, but it has specific meaning when it comes to supporting student mental health. UDL takes as its base, the concept that learners are variable. Variability as a baseline means that we pay attention to the ways that people differ in terms of their experiences, lenses, biases, traumas, social supports, and resources. Following from that, the engagement part of the UDL framework means that Faculty can bake into the design assumptions of these different experiences and lenses, preparing the curriculum in advance to support goal-setting, persistence, and self-monitoring. The strength in supporting mental health is that the framework has the capacity, by way of design, to acknowledge that variability will mean different ways of interpreting and finding meaning in the course content through process-based approaches. The process-based approach applies to both content acquisition and in growth towards becoming an expert learner. A student I worked with recently said that the best support for his mental health was when instructors weren’t surprised by his needs. Becoming familiar with how trauma looks and designing your courses with acknowledgement that mental health struggles find a sweet home in courses where variability and thus flexibility is the rule is one of the most accessible steps you can take.