Lisa Schnell, an English professor at the University of Vermont, says she senses her students’ mental health has deteriorated over the past 12 months, whether taking courses in-person or online.

“The human condition has become a lot more complicated in the pandemic. I think we sometimes call it a mental health crisis, but it's a human condition crisis,” said Schnell, who has taught at the Burlington campus for the past three decades.

Schnell is among professors across the country who say their students are increasingly suffering from stress, anxiety and depression. A new survey has found that 87 percent of faculty who took part in the study report their students’ mental health has worsened — or significantly worsened — over the past year.

“That is not surprising to me,” said Sarah Lipson, a public health professor at Boston University who led the survey. “As a faculty member myself, I have certainly seen students struggling.”

Lipson’s team of researchers, drawn from BU's School of Public Health, the Mary Christie Foundation and the Healthy Minds Network, found that while nearly 80 percent of the 1,685 faculty at 12 colleges surveyed in January reported having one-on-one conversations with students about mental health issues, just half said they know how to recognize when a student is in emotional or mental distress.

Lipson said that situation presents an opportunity for colleges to help faculty support their students who are stressed and depressed, without making a major change in the role of professors.

“We are not, by and large, trained mental health professionals,” she said. “But I think that these data indicate that there's a need for some additional training and resources that can allow faculty to better support students.”

The survey indicated about three quarters of professors would welcome more training.

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Some academics question how much more professors should become involved in their students' mental health.

“Faculty, generally, care about the real successes of their students,” said Michael Gerard Mason, a dean of African-American Affairs at the University of Virginia. He is also a psychotherapist who runs a peer-counseling center for Black students at the school in Charlottesville.

With more than 20 percent of faculty surveyed saying in the survey that supporting students’ mental health has taken a toll on their own, Mason said he worries colleges are asking too much of professors.

“I do think it becomes overwhelming when faculty are beginning to be expected to be the sole line of contact, which I think is what's happening in this pandemic,” he said, suggesting faculty and students need more community support.

“In this country, we fetishize the imagery of the lone wolf, but really in nature if you put a wolf in the woods by themselves, they don't do well,” Mason said. “If you do that, lone wolves don't survive. They die.”

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At the University of Massachusetts Boston, professors have made more requests for training in the past twelve months than ever before, according to Susanna Gallor, a counseling psychologist on the campus. “They’re the ones that see the students most regularly and frequently and they are the ones that can notice patterns and changes in behavior, attendance, performance,” she said.

Gallor, who also teaches psychology courses, says UMass Boston professors — whose instruction has been completely online — want to know how to recognize that their students are in distress and how to respond.

“There's a lot of anxiety around that for faculty and sometimes things can feel very, very scary,” she said.

Such training opportunities already exist on the Dorchester campus for faculty to learn more about supporting students’ mental health, but nothing is required yet.

For now, BU’s Sarah Lipson says there are some things faculty can do right away, like being flexible with deadlines and putting mental health resources on the syllabus.

“We can acknowledge the stress and anxiety that the students are facing right now. Simply acknowledging that, I think, goes a long way in making students feel seen,” she explained. “Knowing students’ names, creating a welcoming class environment to the degree that that's possible in a remote setting.”

Lipson recommends faculty check in with students if they’re worried about them.

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At the University of Vermont, Lisa Schnell teaches Shakespeare and Milton, including a hybrid course this semester dedicated completely to the epic poem Paradise Lost. Schnell said such great literature is all about the human condition, making her subject especially relevant at this moment in history.

“All 12,000 lines of Paradise Lost are about loss,” she said. “Milton didn't think of himself as mentally ill and he was just suffering as a human being and has this vast, capacious sense of what it means to suffer.”

At the end of her Paradise Lost class on a recent afternoon, Schnell encouraged a few in-person students to take homemade cookies as they left.

“Because you were so awesome, there’s two cookies in a bag today, so help yourself,” she told them.

Schnell said it’s amazing how many of her students are surprised when she simply knows their name.

“And they shouldn't be surprised,” she said. “We should be expected to know who our students are.”

Beyond that, Schnell said she always makes it clear that her role as a professor is to be deeply engaged with her students in an intellectual community.

“We care about each other in that community,” she said. “If they're in trouble, they can let me know.”

That said, Schnell added, she’s not going to do any mental health counseling herself.