Why #SpreadLoveAlways? Sure, it sounds nice and yes, it might be more idealistic than realistic, but here’s why I try my best to always spread love inside and outside of the classroom and some things to be aware of in practice:

First and foremost, I want to continue the conversation about mental health. I could ask you to think about the people you know that have experienced mental health issues, but really it might be better to think about the people you know that haven’t experienced any. Are you sure? Are they sure?

These are issues worth talking about for everybody and working in a college environment, I find myself exposed to issues of mental health all the time in all forms. We’re talking about young adults trying to figure out who they are and what they want to be while navigating a digital world that moves faster than ever before.

Personally? I’ve been treated for anxiety and depression; a social anxiety stemming from twenty years of self-esteem issues. And trust me, growing up I totally bought into the stigma and never considered myself one of “those crazy people,” but the reality is that making the conscious decision to seek help is something to be proud of on a journey from self-awareness to self-acceptance. In other words, confronting your own mental health head-on isn’t a sign of weakness at all, in fact it takes incredible fortitude to face a fear of questioning your own self-identity.

If you’ve ever heard a surprised reaction to someone else fighting a mental health issue (“Wow she always seems so happy” or “But he has everything he needs”), that contributes to why I find it so important to spread love. Never assume. The surface isn’t the story. You don’t know what someone might be going through, and you don’t need to know that in order to provide empathetic responses and make others feel valued for who they are as a human being.

I’m going to talk about anxiety-conscious teaching practices, but first I want to challenge you to think about how you deal with differences. What comes to mind when you hear the term “differences”?

For me, I am treating this term in the broadest sense: differences can be race, gender, sexuality, physical appearance, socioeconomic level, cultural practices, religious beliefs, and personal interests and viewpoints. Each of these components has led to various conflicts around the world due to the inability of individuals and groups to effectively interact with people that are “different” than themselves in some way.

My mission is to promote the advancement along the spectrum from tolerance to acceptance to loving and celebrating others and their “differences.” And here’s the commonality with mental health: understanding the attitudes, emotions, and characteristics of an individual today requires empathetic responses and an ability to listen and understand the foundation of why someone feels the way they do or how the way they have been treated for “differences” has impacted their worldview.

So when I say “spread love always”, to me it means operating in love: being aware of and responsive towards any issues that impact someone, practicing empathy and restraining from rushing to judgment, and acknowledging the many positive qualities that can be found in each and every individual.

Despite not teaching in the humanities, I know teaching is about humanity and here are some teaching practices to be aware of with respect to anxiety and mental health:

Class Participation: Is this a part of the course grade? How is class participation defined – attendance? Answering x number of questions or contributing to y number of discussions? It is important to understand that “forced” participation can be quite detrimental to students with anxiety and that oftentimes that their most confident thoughts or questions that they would be willing to share may quickly be “taken” by students who are more immediately vocal.

Group work / projects: For any extended (a full class period or more) collaborative work, the strategy of “form groups of x among yourselves” can often lead anxious students excluded and uncomfortable when singled out and being placed into a group as an “outsider.” Two strategies I’ve used to combat this issue in the classroom are randomization and partial self-selection. I’ve gone through an entire semester where my class norm was to begin each week by selecting cards at random from a deck of cards and maintaining those groups for in-class work throughout the week. For group projects, I have students complete an online survey asking for their preferences in group partners and then choose the groups myself, balancing their preferences and promoting inclusivity.

Out of class “issues”: Every semester unanticipated situations arise that impact a student’s ability to fully meet academic expectations. I want to reiterate how important it is to listen, operate in empathy and love, and remember that education is student-centered. Respect that students are often uncomfortable talking (or emailing) about outside circumstances, and that this communication is an important acknowledgment of the impact on their class performance. The balancing act here is respecting course, department, and institutional policy while ensuring any decisions are equitable towards all students in the class. It is worth mentioning that the largest challenge from the instructor end is being “taken advantage of” and while this is certainly relevant (and delicate), I believe that empathy should always take precedent.

Big picture thoughts: Colleges and universities need more mental health counselors. Marketing materials often feature an institution’s student-to-faculty ratio, but what about a counselor-to-student ratio? Incoming freshman are all assigned academic advisors, but what about counselors? Instructors are usually given recommendations on handling students with physical injuries such as a concussion or a broken arm, but what about recommendations for handling students with anxiety or depression? Additional counselors, faculty training, and communication across relevant parties could go a long way towards supporting the current needs of students and ending the stigma.

Spread love always – it’s more important now than ever.