CAPS Q&A: Building Virtual Classroom Community Vital to Student Mental Health and Well-Being

By Kristin Sloane

With the pandemic, it’s now more important than ever to pay attention to our students’ mental health and well-being. Many are struggling to navigate the uncertainty and new challenges that come with online learning, while trying to live up to their and their instructors’ high expectations. Though most of us are not trained as mental health professionals, there are some small practices we can employ to make sure our students feel supported and welcome in our classes.

Dr. Nicole Fischer, CAPS Assistant Director for OutreachDr. Nicole Fischer is a licensed clinical psychologist and the Assistant Director for Outreach at CAPS. In addition to providing clinical services to students, she collaborates and consults with academic partners across Grounds on programming and education around mental health and works closely with faculty and staff on how they can support students in their roles.

Like all UVA offices, CAPS began offering its services virtually last spring. The team of mental health professionals continues to see students for individual and group therapy sessions as well as provide crisis services. Interfacing with students, faculty, and staff in her role, Dr. Fischer shares her insights on how instructors can help to enhance student well-being and learning during remote/hybrid instruction, especially for our students of color.

Q: What are some common mental health concerns students have been experiencing during the pandemic? How are they different from or the same as in previous years?

A. They're the same, surprisingly. They're just a little bit more elevated at this point in time because everyone's managing so much, so much uncertainty in particular. Depression and anxiety continue to be our number one concern—anxiety more so than depression—along with relationship concerns, stress, and trauma. I think there's certainly been an increase in those presentations for students, particularly students of color and other marginalized populations within the community.

Q: What concerns are you hearing from students of color specifically?

A. I would say they're still the same. They just come about in different ways. Perhaps a student [of color] who didn't experience depression, anxiety, or any sort of mental health concerns before, upon arriving to school … due to the remote learning environment, they're coming to a situation where they don't feel like they're adequately supported or validated or appreciated by their professors with whom they interact more often than anyone else. That tends to escalate concerns among students of color who already may have a more difficult time experiencing a sense of belonging at a predominantly white institution.

Q: What have students of color told you about their online/hybrid learning experiences?

A. It's interesting on the online platform because that's a really uncomfortable experience for nearly every student that I've spoken to, really the lack of connection between students with students as well as students with their professors. If a student feels like they're just not being acknowledged—it’s difficult for anyone to get a lot of attention on Zoom when we're all just looking at boxes of faces—and if we've never actually interacted with those people in person, it creates an even more uncomfortable experience for students.

When you feel already kind of lost among the crowd, that experience is escalated on virtual platforms. For that reason, I've heard from a lot of students that they simply turn off their screen. There is no identity associated with them and their name, which is an interesting way of navigating that concern.

Q: What are some simple ways instructors can support students of color?

A. More than ever, the responsibility of faculty and instructors to create a sense of community among their students is really important. They can choose to do that in course meetings, prior to the initial meeting, or by using breakout rooms, for example. Creating small group conversations apart from the larger conversation can be really helpful. Or even asking students to submit some information about themselves before the course begins so that they (students and instructors) understand who's in the class with them.

I think creating that sense of community is really important for each student, but I think particularly students who already feel a little bit more apprehensive in the classroom setting, to really make sure that everyone feels some sense of belonging and some sense of connection with one another. They're not just a name, but they're an individual with an identity that's being recognized and valued by the instructor.

Q: How can instructors support students’ mental health and well-being in their courses? Any activities/practices/strategies you would recommend?

A. It's about knowing your students as well as you can on this platform—you’re losing a lot without that face-to-face or one-on-one contact. Knowing if a student is acting out of character, you need to know what their actual baseline character is. Without that, it can be really tricky. But even just taking notice of what you as the instructor would identify as unusual behavior or maladaptive behavior, like not attending class or not completing assignments, or not participating in class discussions. Certainly, if a student visibly looks out of character or disoriented in some way, I think that would be another identifying factor that suggests you should check in with the student and see how they're doing.

I would even encourage professors to be proactive about it and check in with every student throughout the semester. Simply asking, ‘how are you doing?’ is important, not because you suspect anything's wrong, but I think it's just another opportunity for the student to tell you actually how they are doing. I find that students, when a professor asks them how they're doing, they'll tell them, but it's the absence of asking that really feels like, ‘Well, I guess they just don't care.’

Q: What is the most important thing you want instructors to know about their students’ mental health and well-being at this time?

A. It's kind of an obvious answer, but recognizing that this is extremely difficult for students. It's difficult for all of us. None of us have lived through this before. But students, and UVA students in particular, have a level of expectation for themselves and, given current circumstances, most of them aren't really able to maintain that. It’s stressful taking classes online. It's stressful not knowing your professors. It's stressful having to do group projects in a Zoom room versus at the library.

I've heard from students that their course load seems heavier now than when it was in person. They're suspecting—whether accurate or not—that professors feel like they have to justify the class by giving them lots of work if the in-class instruction isn't at the same caliber as it typically would be. They simply feel they have so much work to do.

And again, it's all online. They're also really missing their friends. They're really missing interacting with one another. They’re young adults. They need that social interaction, and they're not getting it in the same way that they are used to or familiar with. Managing their academic responsibilities, as well as navigating a new social landscape is incredibly challenging for the students we're working with. I think just having a level of empathy for that. It doesn't mean that it's an excuse. Students still need to come into class and get their work done and be productive, but I think recognizing the perspective students have is really important for professors to take into consideration. Again, simply asking, ‘how are you doing?’ can really make a big difference.

Q: What resources should instructors be aware of to help students who may be struggling?

A. CAPS is still available. All our services remain consistent—just on a virtual platform. We’ve expanded our support groups, both in number and topics offered, and several support groups are available for students not residing in the state of Virginia. Additional resources include SilverCloud, WahooWell, the Multicultural Student Center, and the Contemplative Sciences Center.  Also, Peer Health Educators and their "Thrive" outreach is specifically geared to students who want to talk to peers about mental health and well-being.

Faculty members can always reach out to CAPS on their own and talk to us about a student they're concerned about. They can also refer students to CAPS without hesitation any time of day. That's really important for them to know. You don't have to be fully aware of all the nuances and all the services that CAPS offers. Simply directing a student to our website is helpful.

Become familiar with our other outreach services, in addition to our clinical services. CAPS can provide presentations to your students. We’re readily able to do that and interested in doing that, whether that's a presentation, like a guest lecture, or a presentation about CAPS services or some mental health topic. That's something that we're more than happy to offer to classes, professors, and their students.

Also, be aware of the other mental health resources on Grounds: the Ainsworth Clinic, the Sheila C. Johnson Clinic, and the Women's Center. They all provide therapy and/or assessments of some kind. I think being able to offer choices for students to select from is really important.

I think also keeping in mind that the Office of the Dean of Students is a really helpful resource for faculty to lean on. CAPS collaborates very closely with ODOS. For a student, or a faculty member, if they feel more comfortable reaching out to us or ODOS, trust that the communication will inevitably lead the student in the right direction without compromising confidentiality.

Q: Do you have any additional advice you wish to share with instructors?

A. I would really emphasize the fact that instructors can reach out to CAPS on their own and consult with us about a student that they're concerned about, or even just an issue that they're having. For example, if students aren't participating in class, is there potentially some psychosocial reason why that might be occurring? It doesn't have to be a specific student and a specific concern, but even just a global observation that they're making note of. We act as consultants, quite often I do, especially in my role, but all of the CAPS clinicians are able to do that. I would encourage instructors not to hesitate to reach out to us if they need our support in any way.


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