How do we deal with suffering mental health in the academe?

tl;dr: Suffering is part of life. Poor mental health will be a regular challenge for both educators and students. But we can reframe these forms of suffering as opportunities to be more authentic; to stay the virtuous course. This is an opportunity for all parties to explicitly commit and act responsibly towards a collectively agreed-upon outcome, covering each other’s weaknesses, and struggling together towards flourishing.

Mark 8:34-9:1. Whoever wishes to come after Me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me

We have come to associate pleasure with rewards and suffering with punishment. Yet, the stories of Job and Christ show that suffering is not necessarily punishment; suffering is part of life. Suffering is part of a virtuous pursuit; the deliberate building of habits to be good (virtue), or the deliberate building of habits to be a master of one’s craft (virtuoso).

The virtuous pursuit requires sacrifice and temperance. I don’t this necessarily means that we should give up all forms of pleasure; the challenge is finding the balance and peace between extreme pleasure and suffering.

We have experienced how the pandemic is not just a biological issue. It has led to suffering in terms of our mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health as well. We’re familiar with the reports of people suffering from anxiety attacks, panic attacks, and depression due to isolation from our loved ones.

Is it appropriate to view the pandemic and our multiple forms of suffering as punishment? The story of Job offers an answer: no. But the times of suffering are opportunities for us to be more virtuous, to embrace more our human nature to be good. When it is more tempting to take advantage of suffering as a means to abuse those who suffer more than us, we can become more like saints if we choose to lift others despite our own suffering.

How does this inform how teachers and students can deal with mental health issues?

I find insight in how the general empirical method or the Lasallian reflection framework can be applied to explain the actions of Job. Imagine suffering the worst kinds of disasters: losing one’s loved ones and material possessions all at once. I dare say that Job is the poster boy of what a person with the poorest levels of mental health would look like.

When it is easiest to curse a higher power, Job chose to… reflect. Inquire. Postpone judgement and action until he thought he has reasonably made sense of his suffering.

Social media and pop culture have trained us to automatically react, do snap judgements, and act with minimal reflection. As long as it feels good, it must be good. Thus, anything that feels bad must be bad. But this does not reflect the reality of our lives. Instincts and reason are meant to complement each other.

A friend of mine who teaches at another school shared a common story in the academe: a student shared that they are clinically diagnosed with high levels of anxiety, and that a certain classroom assessment triggers anxiety attacks for the student. How should educators manage this increasingly common manifestation of poor mental health of students?

Did the student do the right thing, informing the professor of one’s poor mental health conditions ahead of time? Yes! But what would be wrong, in my perspective, is if the student blatantly lies or mentions this predicament near the end of the term, when it’s too late for the teacher to do something.

Is it valid for educators to feel frustrated about these situations? Yes! As former students ourselves, we’re all to familiar with all kinds of “palusot” or excuses, and thus, within this premise and context, it is natural for us to have a healthy amount of skepticism. But what would be wrong for us is to immediately judge (as in, form conclusions solely based on feelings of frustrations) the student.

Thus the call for reasonableness in judgements and responsibility in commitment-actions. The fundamental principle is dialogue. It is the role of the student to be proactive in communication and to explicitly show both commitment and action to find other ways of demonstrating learning. On the other hand, it is the role of the teacher to provide multiple opportunities for the student to demonstrate commitment and action to learning despite the circumstances.

My conclusion is that mental health issues, both from the teacher and the student, are mostly personal; on the level of the unseen interior. It is unreasonable to judge another using our own biases and standards of what we respectively consider as bearable or unbearable. Thus, in the spirit of authenticity, the general empirical model, the Catholic see-judge-act, and the Lasallian reflection framework highlights the need to EXPLICITLY COMMIT AND ACT, while ensuring RESPONSIBILITY.

Suffering is part of life. Poor mental health will be a regular challenge for both educators and students. But we can reframe these forms of suffering as opportunities to be more authentic; to stay the virtuous course. This is an opportunity for all parties to explicitly commit and act responsibly towards a collectively agreed-upon outcome, covering each other’s weaknesses, and struggling together towards flourishing.

[DAILY GOSPEL INSIGHTS AND REFLECTION FOR MANAGEMENT AND ORGANIZATION 49: FEBRUARY 18, 2022]

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