‘Worse than hell’: How Utah Tech professors will foster student mental health beyond COVID-19

Stock photo | Photo by Pexels/Engin Akyurt, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — As Shawn Myers sanitized a COVID-19 isolation apartment in Utah Tech’s student housing, he found graffiti on a desk. His fingers traced over the fresh engraving a student had carved into the wood: “This is worse than hell.”

View of Utah Tech University Campus, St. George, Utah, July 15, 2022 | Photo by Truman Burgess, St. George News

Beginning in 2019, Myers, a university student himself, helped manage Utah Tech’s student housing throughout the pandemic.

Seeing student mental health deteriorate firsthand, Myers began to track students’ emotional wellbeing as the pandemic continued. This led to his senior capstone project, an in-depth analysis of student mental health at Utah Tech University after the enforced quarantine phase had passed.

“The biggest thing I saw in the student body was a change in demeanor,” Myers said. “They were like their life was sucked out.”

One full-time student he interviewed, a 33-year-old single mother, did not have mental health issues before the pandemic. But after losing both her mother and father to COVID-19, she now has crippling anxiety she’ll lose someone else close to her whenever there’s mention of a new outbreak or strain of the virus.

View of a statue on Utah Tech campus, St. George, Utah, July 15, 2022 | Photo by Truman Burgess, St. George News

Myers discovered this student is not alone in experiencing lasting emotional harm from the pandemic. As the fall 2022 semester approaches at Utah Tech University, St. George News met with professors to see how they will foster positive mental health for students as they move on through the pandemic.

In March 2020, just three months into his collegiate teaching career, political science professor Vince Brown told his students that about every 10 years, some catastrophe happens, and the U.S. was overdue. He told his students to brace themselves. 

“Sure enough, a week or two later, the pandemic hit,” Brown said.

The university gave professors the responsibility to immediately come up with teaching online plans. 

“I was trying to teach students to think critically and act civilly, but the interaction I wanted with students was gone when I was behind a screen,” he said. “What was lost was the delay of action between people. I couldn’t read people as well.”

The first semester he was teaching online, Brown had to bring his wife into the room with him and speak to her instead of his computer while he taught classes in order to mentally carry-on discussions with classes.

Brown said as the pandemic wore on, he saw his students drastically decrease in emotional stability.

“In fall semester of 2021, I was so concerned about my students and their mental health that I was in regular contact with the suicide resource center here,” he said. “I attended lectures on suicide. I was trying to educate myself, and I didn’t do enough. I was really quite concerned about my students.

View of Utah Tech University Campus, St. George, Utah, July 15, 2022 | Photo by Truman Burgess, St. George News

“When I looked at the precipitous decline in student mental health, I was alarmed, not just concerned. I decided I would quadruple my efforts to let my students know I was there and that I could be a resource they could go to.”

Through diligently educating himself and being willing to adapt to the needs of his students, Brown said his empathy for student circumstances increased throughout the pandemic, and his current teaching policies reflect what he’s learned: treat student circumstances on an individual, compassionate basis.

The pandemic led Brown to adapt his teaching procedures to be more accommodating and interactive, eliminating some traditional college practices in order to aid students’ emotional wellbeing.

“I’m more accommodating now than I used to be. I allow students to test online now. I made more of my tests to be open-book, and students can take them any time in a 24-hour period.

“I can honestly say no one has abused the attendance flexibility,” he said. “I think students prefer to be in person, and they’ve come to value the energy of meeting in real life. They’ve said that to me on many, many occasions.”

Dr. James Stein, an associate professor of communication at Utah Tech, shares Brown’s view that professors need to be more flexible in methodology to help students’ mental health.

Stein completed his doctoral studies in interpersonal communication about two years before the pandemic began, meaning flexible communication methodology was already at the forefront of his mind when the pandemic erupted in 2020.

“I was in a unique position,” Stein said. “I was ready for it. Much of the faculty here, however, was not.”

During the pandemic, Stein said he saw how some other professors failed students by not adapting their teaching to student circumstances, emotionally damaging students on top of residual emotional effects from the pandemic.

“It wasn’t actually the transition into the pandemic — it was the transition out of the pandemic in which the students were the most traumatized by the rigidity of some faculty members,” he said.

This rigidity, to Stein, is the teaching mindset of a professor feeling the need to place strict, authoritative administrative rules in place, perhaps because the professor learned that way in the past, and whenever a rule is broken, harsh academic punishment follows from the professor.

“I would say that the number one thing that the pandemic taught me is that that is a really stupid way to teach,” Stein said. “It does not encourage learning. It does not encourage or increase mental health. It does not increase retention. It does not increase attendance. All it does is make your students resent you.”

Stein said he saw professors withdraw class credit when students would abstain from class due to COVID-19 symptoms, even when the university itself desired students to stay away from classrooms if they felt those symptoms.

Moving forward into fall semester, Stein is confident and hopeful that professors will see students in a more trusting and nurturing light.

“Students during this pandemic were desperate for normalcy. They were not desperate to get out of class — class was one of the things that was holding them together,” he said.

“For the most part, students are genuine and authentic, and for us to assume that they are trying to breeze their way through college through forgery and excuse-making strips them of their autonomy and adulthood. It infantizes them, and that’s wrong — these are adults.”

Both Professor Brown and Professor Stein voiced their appreciation for Utah Tech’s flexibility and support, and they said they hope to see their fellow professors continue to adapt to student needs as the pandemic continues to impact college education.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

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