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Psychologist speaks at Mary Washington on student mental health

Rebecca Barnabi
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An email from a colleague at the University of Mary Washington is what prompted Center for Teaching Director Victoria Russell to eventually act on her plans to address a growing problem in college classrooms.

The email said: “For what it’s worth, I’m really stressed out.” And students are also struggling with mental health challenges. Russell wanted to know what she and her colleagues could do to meet increasing student mental health needs while maintaining meaningful, rigorous coursework.

Her plans began to take action earlier this month with a keynote address and workshop by psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh, author of Mind Over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge. Cavanagh, a Simmons University psychology professor and senior associate director for teaching and learning, said “compassionate challenge” are the key to promoting youth mental wellness on campus.

“As instructors, we can support and encourage student mental health through pedagogies of care,” Cavanagh sent in materials ahead of her talk. “Pedagogies of care involve high-touch practices like frequent communication, flexibility, inclusive teaching practices, learning new technologies and techniques, and being enthusiastic and passionate.”


Faculty and students have had no shortage of stressors lately: the COVID-19 pandemic, political polarization, racial tensions, environmental concerns. Students are left with to deal with difficult pasts, uncertain presents and precarious futures.

“I think that interacting with each other is so much harder than it was before,” said UMW Professor of Sociology Leslie Martin, who attended the workshop at which Cavanagh spoke in the Cedric Rucker University Center.

Cavanagh heard similar stories as she traveled the United States after the pandemic and wrote Mind Over Monsters. At the UMW workshop, she shared research, cited real-life experiences, theories and resources, and encouraged participants to exchange ideas.

Mary Washington Head Athletic Trainer Beth Druvenga stressed goal-setting, which was the theme of Cavanagh’s afternoon workshop, as a way to engage students and boost confidence.

“Looking into student goals on the front end of the semester could give professors insight into their motivation,” Druvenga said. “That would also give them the opportunity to check and see if they’re meeting their goals or what they need to do differently.”

Such strategies strengthen learning environments, according to Cavanagh, who writes for The Chronicle of Higher Education and blogs for Psychology Today.

“Faculty can do the most for students by being purposeful in our classroom designs and supporting students to manage what may feel uncomfortable,” said Russell.

Key to the concept of being intentional is what Cavanagh calls “flexibility with guardrails.” Juxtaposing clear expectations with deadlines and assessments tailored to personal needs can help create a sense of security.

“I think that students need compassion, and they also need a challenge,” she said. “Compassion has to come first.”

Russell said hopes to bring more opportunities for exploring mental health concerns to the UMW community.


Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.