Mental Health on Campus: An Interview with Dr. Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy

Ginelle Testa

Do you feel like your students are more disengaged than ever? You aren’t alone! We spoke with an expert on how faculty can best support students who are disengaged and struggling with their mental health. 

Not sure if you’ve had a student who has mental health struggles? “I can’t imagine one faculty member that hasn’t witnessed a student struggling with mental health issues,” said Dr. Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy. 

In the following interview, Dr. Holcomb-McCoy shared her practical suggestions about how faculty and administrators can support mental health on campus.

An interview with Dr. Holcomb-McCoy

What changes have you seen in pandemic recovering times with instructors and students?

One thing that I think really has changed is that faculty now are more flexible in their scheduling because they're noticing when students are going through stressful periods, are experiencing anxiety, and need a mental health break. Having hybrid classrooms will allow for more flexibility for students who need to possibly not be in class that day but want to engage in another way. 

One silver lining of the pandemic was that faculty are more in tune with what students are going through. Faculty were not as in tune with the fact that students were dealing with mental health issues and just life in general. I think with COVID, it became so apparent.

What are some tools faculty can use to support students who are struggling?

At American University, we have what we call care reports, and the faculty are trained to use these reports. It's very structured. Instructors identify that a student is struggling, they submit these care reports to the Center for Well-Being, and then the Center follows up with the student. That way, the faculty are not in a position of having to talk to the student about their mental health needs. If a faculty member is concerned, they can report it, and someone will follow up with the student. We’ve found this to be quite effective. 

I think it's important for faculty to observe students and to get to know their students well. And when you notice or observe something that is out of character or different, if you notice that students aren't showing up, they were showing up. All of a sudden, they're not coming to class, or if their work has changed, you take note of that, and either have a conversation with the student or fill out a care report if you're really concerned.

What can admins do to support faculty and students?

A culture of wellness starts with faculty and administrators. I’d say hire more counselors and mental health professionals to be on campus, provide spaces for self-care and wellness—comfortable spaces for students to de-stress, and have mindfulness training. It's also important to normalize and demystify mental health and the stigma around mental health issues. 

About the Expert

Dr. Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy believes in the revolutionary power of school counseling and early education. An American Counseling Association (ACA) Fellow with 30 years of experience as a former kindergarten teacher, elementary school counselor, family therapist, and most recently, university professor and administrator, she has a wealth of knowledge, expertise, and wisdom.

Dr. Holcomb-McCoy is the Dean of the School of Education and a Distinguished Professor at American University (AU). She is also the author of the best-selling book School Counseling to Close Opportunity Gaps: A Social Justice Framework for Success (2nd edition) (Corwin Press) and the edited book, Antiracist Counseling in Schools and Communities (ACA Publications).

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