Student Affairs Administrators Get Suicidal Too

No, let's not always be hanging out together. No, let's not just laugh off that we never use any of our vacation days. Let's try yes to a work/life balance that actually allows us the opportunity to stop work and have a life.
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Years ago, when I was in my last semester of getting my masters degree in Student Affairs, my pager started beeping right at daybreak. As it was my fourth consecutive year on-call doing emergency response, I was pretty desensitized to crises that weren't crises: lockouts, noise complaints and the occasional first-year who got a little too tipsy trying Midori Sours for the first time.

That morning, there was a body on the pavement.

One of the senior vice presidents of the university had taken her own life by jumping from the rooftop of my building. She was a champion of student affairs, a tireless advocate of creating a greater sense of community within such a large sprawling institution. "Shocking" didn't begin to cover this tragedy.

And then, within a few hours, it was as if the suicide had never happened. Sure, there had been a death, replete with public condolences, memorials and sadness. But you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone anywhere at the university who would engage in the topic of suicide. Even worse, the topic was categorically ignored in my classes. Here we were, a group of grad students studying student affairs, aspiring to someday actually be a senior vice president, and we didn't mention what had happened to one of our own.

Over the years, there have been student affairs professionals who have killed themselves. Some of these tragedies have been covered by the media. Most have not. One just happened a few days ago. Here we are in a field of residence hall managers, student activities coordinators, Greek life directors and other assorted student affairs specialists, all trained extensively on exactly what to do should a student display suicidal ideations, and yet we are ill-equipped to talk about our own fragile place in this college landscape.

To be clear: I am in no way implying that student affairs professionals are more suicidal than the population at large. But there are a few facets of our field that are problematic, nigh dangerous, that must be addressed in order for us to have some conversations that we are blatantly not having.

Student Affairs Candidates Should Be Mandated To Counseling.

Students getting their graduate degrees in counseling, psychology and social work are often strongly encouraged to undergo counseling themselves. In many programs, it is more akin to a requirement. And yet, student affairs candidates do not receive the same encouragement/mandate. Why the heck not?

We are the first-responders to all sorts of triggering incidents, from sexual assaults to alcohol and other drug immersions to psychotic breaks. In wrapping my mind around this topic, a counseling colleague turned me toward the concept of "vicarious trauma" -- a range of negative reactions experienced by first-responders to the suffering of those to whom they feel some sort of responsibility and for whom they deeply care.

Those first-responders are us! That's all of us student affairs professionals who are constantly presented with our students' issues and yet we're never taught to integrate the self-care piece of counseling to balance out the vicarious trauma we inevitably face. Masters and doctoral programs must start phasing in this counseling piece to preserve the mental health of all of us in the field.

Student Affairs Administrators Must Accept That We're Not Therapists.

Sometimes we go way, way too far in our role with students. Situations often place us in the position of being a counselor/therapist/psychologist to our students. But even worse, we habitually agree to serve in this role.

We are not trained therapists. We're not equipped to be therapists. And, ultimately, it's irresponsible for us to pretend we are therapists. It pushes us beyond our capacity, which is never good for our mental health. And, it's really confusing for our students (check out the idea of splitting... students playing one therapist against another).

Stabilizing an incident is one thing. Counseling is another. We must start handing off some of these situations earlier in the process to individuals who are better prepared to weather the trauma being shared.

Student Affairs Administrators Must Get Boundaries. Now.

There's just something about our field that makes us think, "Yeah, it's okay to have work and life be completely blurred together." And it's actually not okay. At all.

I get it. We live in dorms. We attend at activities at night. We cook midnight breakfast. And the only people we're often around are students or a handful of other student affairs professionals engaged in the same work. It thus feels natural to spend time only with those two groups.

This is where supervisors must step in and say no. No, let's not always be hanging out together. No, let's not always share our personal lives in ways that would be inappropriate in any other office situation. No, let's not just laugh off that we never use any of our vacation days. Let's try yes to a work/life balance that actually allows us the opportunity to stop work and have a life.

I'm not denying that we work bizarre hours and that the field of student affairs isn't uniquely draining in ways that professors and other administrators truly cannot fathom. But somewhere in there, I fear we're some of the worst professionals at caring for ourselves... the utmost in ironic given our role of caring for students, right?

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