Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus. Alarming new data is making it increasingly clear that college students are struggling with mental well-being. In this multi-part series, Thrive brings you in-depth reporting into the reasons behind the college mental health crisis, unvarnished truths from students, faculty and experts about what needs to change, and science-backed strategies to boost students’ well-being. We will be adding new pieces on an ongoing basis, and if you are a college student, grad, or expert with a perspective to share, we invite you to contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) Read more here.
Anyone who has juggled a job and academics will tell you that it forces you to mature fast. I worked as a Residential Advisor (RA) in a first-year residence hall for two of my four years at Colorado College, a small liberal arts school in Colorado Springs. It was a great job that I learned a lot from. But I felt that I, and other RA’s on my campus, experienced more stress from our jobs than some other student employees because of what we were being asked to do.
Most student positions entail working at an administrative desk job, or refereeing intramural sports. When you’re done with your shift you leave, relax, and focus on being a student. When you’re an RA, you’re an RA always -- a phrase that was drilled into me by my bosses. The place where you work is the same place as where you live. Everyone knows you are a RA, and sometimes I had to remind myself that I was also a student.
I had wanted to be an RA before I was even accepted into Colorado College. I went to visit the campus when I was still a high schooler and met with a family friend who was an RA. She told me about the community she built and the events she put on for her residents. It sounded like a great way to become involved in the campus and make a difference for other students.
Before I took the RA job, I was told it would be rewarding but hard. No one ever told me why it would be challenging beyond having to give up a few weekend nights to work rather than socialize. I can now tell you that what made the job difficult and stressful, for me, was living in the place where I worked. It made it hard for me to draw a line between when I was working and when I was just a student. It is also difficult for other students to define the line between when an RA was being an RA, or when they were just a student or a friend.
With time and energy, my residents came to know me as someone they could trust and be there to help and support them, rather than police them. Since I built such strong relationships with my residents, they would often stop me for impromptu meaningful conversations, which I loved. But there was also no escaping my residents. If I was having a bad day and just wanted to be left alone, I was still an RA. If a resident stopped me, I would end up helping someone else when I really needed to be taking care of myself. When going to brush my teeth at night, I would always run into residents. I would check in with them, all the while postponing the time until I could put my head on my pillow and get the sleep I needed.
Beyond the stresses of the everyday job of being an RA, there is also the greater and more serious issue of lack of mental health support on college campuses. On Colorado College’s campus there are five full-time counselors for 2,000 students. The school offers six free counseling sessions to students each year, but there is usually a wait of at least two weeks to get an appointment. The lack of counselors for the amount of demand from students puts greater pressure on RAs. We would end up handling mental health cases (just because students have to wait to see a counselor doesn't mean their mental well-being can wait.) Each week the RAs in my building met with our boss to have a team meeting. There, we would bring up any residents we or our bosses were worried about. We would figure out who had the best relationship with these individuals, and that person would be expected to check in with the students, offer support, and help connect them with available resources on campus. This could be stressful since sometimes the individual was not open to help, and other times they would say they were trying to get into see a counselor, but there were no available times in the near future.
All RAs on campus have Mental Health First Aid training as well as QPR Suicide Prevention training. However, we are not therapists. Despite this training, I was still a student, and it was taxing on my own mental well-being to have residents rely on me with theirs. Even more stressful was when, in the aftermath of handling a difficult situation, I was unable to get myself an appointment at the counseling center for two weeks.
There were times where I needed to debrief with a professional after a situation I experienced. But when I called the counseling center on campus, I was not met with the answers I hoped for. I handled situations from managing an overly intoxicated student and their scared roommates, to helping a student with an eating disorder, to meeting with students who were experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression. As an RA. In high school, I saw a therapist to work on my own anxiety, and would sometimes during college try to seek help from the counseling center to get my anxiety back under control. No matter the situation, when I would call and say, “I need to see a counselor,” the response I would get is: “We can see you in two weeks.” This was really hard to hear. It did not help the mental state I was in at that moment, when I was struggling, to hear that no one could see me for two weeks. It felt like no one cared. After the second time this happened to me my sophomore year, I stopped trying. If things got stressful as an RA, I would talk to my boss to debrief from a situation. If I was anxious, I would schedule an appointment with my therapist back in California for the next time I went home. Those support systems I had in place beyond the counseling center were very helpful to me, but I should not have had to rely on them to the extent that I did. I should have been able to see a counselor on campus in a timely manner. And other students should have that right, too.
Campuses across the United States are struggling to keep up with the mental health demands of their students. Needless to say they need to do better. As an RA, I experienced first-hand the stress tax of not having a large enough counseling staff for the student body. As student leaders, myself and other RAs brought our concerns to the administration and, yes, since then a few changes have been made.
My group of RAs brought up several concerns: Our training was too long and poorly thought out. Training started a full month before school began, three weeks before new students arrived on campus. In my mind, this was an extreme amount of time and led to burnout among RAs, who would start school already tired due to our nine-to-five training every day for four weeks. Our trainings ranged from difficult topics like dealing with suicidal students and reporting sexual assaults to mind-numbing sessions on how to fill out a simple event-planning sheet (the lesson being: follow the instructions on the sheet of paper). After sitting in hours of training each day, I would then return to the empty dorm to prepare for the arrival of residents. It was draining.
Since this petition, the school has taken steps to spread out the sessions that contain difficult materials, and have become more respectful of RAs’ time and mental well-being. The moral of this story is we all have to be vigilant about mental health on campus in the wake of too few resources.
Here are some more lessons I took away from my experience that could potentially help you in yours:
If you’re a student, don’t give up. If there is a need for greater mental health support on your campus, ask for it, and be the voice of other students.
If you’re a campus administrator, know that the stress tax of being an RA is high. Please look out for your students who are shouldering this extra burden. And please fight for increased budgets and staffs for your mental health centers.
If you’re an RA who is tasked with caring for other students’ mental well-being, don’t forget to take care of yourself first.
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