Recent years have seen an important and long overdue increase in the number of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in computer science (CS) programs, designed to increase participation and students’ sense of belonging. Additionally, innovations in curricula, assessment, and pedagogical approaches have been developed to help students learn CS more effectively and at greater scale.
However, all these efforts will be for naught if students feel mentally unhealthy, associate CS with their mental health concerns, or feel marginalized — or, in many cases, further marginalized — because of ongoing mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and many others.
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of CS students living with mental health challenges was becoming a concern.
A 2018 paper reported that 38% of undergraduate engineering students at a large public university exhibited a high risk of serious mental illness, which is nearly 10 times the rate among the U.S. adult population. (1)
A 2020 paper found that CS students at the study’s target institution had a prevalence of anxiety and depression symptoms at 51.9% and 64.9% respectively, much higher than the general population, and also higher than other undergraduate students. (2)
As our community seeks to broaden participation in computing and make CS education more accessible, it is becoming increasingly urgent to be inclusive of students who are living with mental illness. Failure to do so will not only harm individual students, but will also have an effect on recruitment and retention going forward.
Destigmatizing mental illness
Because mental illness is considered an “invisible disability,” and because of the stigma that is often associated with it, it can be difficult for instructors to identify the students who are living with mental illness and who need support.
One step CS instructors can take to address stigmas around mental health conditions and foster a welcoming environment is to make a statement (e.g., on their syllabus, as an in-class announcement, etc.) that they acknowledge that some of their students may be living with mental illness, and that they understand those students face unique challenges, and may require special accommodations.
Although support from their instructors is critical to the success of students living with mental illness, they must also feel that they are not alone in their academic community, and that there are “other students like me” with whom they can share experiences and find encouragement. As there is a pronounced overlap with already marginalized communities, students may find kinship in affinity groups for students of color, members of the LGBTQ+ communities, students with physical disabilities, etc.
Recent years have seen an uptick in the creation of student wellness groups that advocate for the use of wellness resources and healthy lifestyles. These groups often have a mental health-related focus as well, and provide opportunities for students living with mental illness to have an impact on their classmates and community. Instructors should increase awareness of these groups, encourage students to join them, and participate in their activities.
Mentorship and role models are also important when it comes to members of any marginalized community. Even instructors who do not identify as living with mental health conditions can serve as mentors to these students, and if they are not comfortable doing so, they should consider connecting students with alumni who would be, or pointing students to organizations such as AccessComputing, which aims to increase the participation in computing of people with disabilities of all types.
When it comes to CS courses themselves, specifically modes of instruction and assessment, there are three key principles that instructors should follow to be supportive of students living with mental illness: flexibility, options, and empathy.
Instructors should recognize that students living with mental illness may unexpectedly need extra time to manage their condition, and flexible policies in terms of class and lab attendance, and assignment submission deadlines can give students the time they need should such a situation arise. Although students with neurodevelopmental conditions such as ADHD may receive academic accommodations from their institution’s disabilities services office, students living with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorders, and other similar conditions may receive little to no institutional academic support, saddling them with the extra burden of having to advocate for themselves, in addition to managing their condition and completing their coursework.
Instructors should also provide options for things like group work in labs and projects and in-class presentations so that students are not forced into situations that are unnecessarily stressful or even triggering. For instance, students could have the option of completing part of a group project on their own, and then integrating their code with the other students’ via an API, which would mimic the approach in distributed software development teams; or instead of doing an in-class presentation, students could record a video in advance.
Recognizing that group work and presentations can be an important part of students’ learning experience, the suggestion is not that individual students be singled out or treated as a special case, but rather that these options exist for all students. Instructors should think about why they are asking their students to do these things, and consider alternatives so that their students can achieve the course learning outcomes in a manner that suits them best.
Last, instructors should be empathetic toward their students who are living with mental illness, and acknowledge that it can be just as debilitating as a physical disability.
Certainly no instructor would expect a student to “just get over it” when it comes to something such as vision impairment or mobility impairment, and yet students are often expected to “power through” issues such as anxiety and depression, either because instructors do not understand the effects of those conditions, or they simply do not believe students who say they are living with them.
Although it certainly is not in the students’ interest to lower standards or reduce rigor, instructors must “meet students where they are” in terms of their mental health, and be willing to make adjustments as needed in order to help their students succeed.
Expanding the community
In the same way that advocacy efforts for marginalized communities require allies from outside that community, the same holds true when it comes to supporting students living with ongoing mental health conditions.
The faculty, staff, and administration who put in the effort to destigmatize mental illness and foster inclusive communities for students living with mental health conditions tend to be the ones who are living with mental illness themselves, which places upon them the extra burden of doing this work in addition to managing their health.
Thus, all CS instructors should be considerate of the unique needs of their students who are living with mental illness in order to continue efforts to broaden participation in CS and to help these students succeed while staying healthy.
Chris Murphy is a Senior Lecturer in Computer Science at Bryn Mawr College, where he teaches undergraduate CS courses and helps build community as Department Program Coordinator. Outside the classroom, Chris leads advocacy and awareness efforts regarding CS student mental health and fostering supportive environments for students living with mental health conditions. Prior to joining the faculty at Bryn Mawr, Chris was an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received the Provost’s Award for Teaching Excellence by Non- Standing Faculty. Chris holds a PhD in Computer Science from Columbia University and a BS in Computer Engineering from Boston University.
1. A. Danowitz and K. Beddoes, “Characterizing mental health and wellness in students across engineering disciplines,” Proc. of the 2018 Collaborative Network for Engineering and Computing Diversity Conference, 2018.
2. L. M. Soares-Passos, C. Murphy, R. Z. Chen, M. Gonçalves de Santana, and G. Soares Passos, “The Prevalence of Anxiety and Depression Symptoms among Brazilian Computer Science Students,” Proc. of the 51st ACM SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, March 2020.