Opinion: Counselor self-care critical to quality care for all

Zoe Ragouzeos / December 21, 2017

Acknowledging the need for counselors and other student affairs professionals to take care of their own mental health can prevent a crisis within a crisis

THE sustained increase in the number of students seeking mental health services on college campuses is well documented. But what is less publicized is the stress this increased demand often causes the caregivers.

Alongside the data that shows increases in levels of depression and anxiety among college students is an increase in the acuity of symptoms, including more students presenting with life-and-death concerns. According to the American College Health Association (ACHA), the suicide rate among young adults ages 15-24 has tripled since the 1950s, and suicide is currently the second-most common cause of death among college students.

Added to this is increased pressure on counseling and student affairs staff to keep students safe from other concerns: sexual misconduct, substance misuse, and maladaptive eating and sleeping. It should be no surprise that working at this kind of pace — with a constant stream of high-risk symptoms — has put counselors in a constant state of worry.

Is the student they’ve just seen going to follow up on a suicidal or homicidal threat? This worry can make counselors and other student affairs staff feel anxious, distressed, and burned out.

Counselors and other student affairs staff enter their professions because they are caring and compassionate people who want to help others. However, the very nature of their work can make them feel depleted — even on a good day. In fact, counselors can experience trauma themselves due to constantly working with trauma survivors, and many college students do have a trauma history.

Acknowledging this phenomenon is the first step in preventing what could become a crisis within a crisis. An important connection exists between helping students become well and being well yourself. As counselors, if we neglect our own needs, we can quickly experience fatigue and burnout — which impacts the quality of care we can give students.

Burnout can result in physical symptoms such as headaches and sleep difficulties that might affect a counselor’s ability to come to work. There can be emotional manifestations that include feelings of depression and anxiety, impeding their ability to function. Burnout can cause resentment, tardiness, and other negative behavior that perpetuates low workplace morale. Counselors may even develop negative attitudes toward their patients, resulting in defensiveness, pessimism, and intolerance.

We must do everything possible to avoid these ramifications while balancing our number one priority – keeping our students safe and healthy. When there are patients to see and work to be done, it is difficult for leaders to make room for the needs of their staff.

Nevertheless, doing so is of the utmost importance if we wish to provide excellent quality services to our students.

We must encourage our colleagues to seek self-care opportunities both as part of their jobs and — most importantly — outside work hours. This personal restoration can come in the form of their own personal therapy, getting rest, and spending time with loved ones.

One way we can offer counselors care during office hours is to ensure adequate clinical supervision rather than leaving our staff to struggle with difficult cases on their own. We must ensure there are supervisors available for consultations, and to do this in both an individual and team setting where staff can interact and collaborate with peers. This can be helpful in alleviating their worry about properly managing cases, and the sense of feeling isolated in decision-making.

We should also ensure that there are adequate professional development opportunities available to staff — networking and social opportunities with peers and mentors — to ensure that they are constantly rejuvenated by their work.

Finally, counseling centers can offer the same kind of wellness activities for their staff that they do for their students, both on and off work hours. Mindfulness, yoga, and fitness activities before or after work is one way; access to nutritious food and a healthy, collaborative work environment is another.

Zoe Ragouzeos is a board member of the Mary Christie Foundation