by Caitlin (CJ) Jones
Each October we celebrate Careers in Students Affairs Month. Countless professionals plan programs and host sessions to spur top leaders into considering the path so many of us chose. Then we move into November, an overall tough month. We are nearing the end of the semester: faculty are preparing for finals, staff are intentionally connecting to those with various post-midterm alerts, undergraduate students are anxiously awaiting a break and second year graduate students are nervously preparing for the upcoming job search.
For me, the end of last semester was more reflective than many others. I was thinking a lot about the students we’ve all encouraged to follow our footsteps. These thoughts started on World Mental Health Day when I wrote a brief blog post. I shared details of my path through college into life now, 4.5 years after getting my master’s degree, and I realized that our focus for undergraduate holistic student development fades when they become graduate assistants who are making truly heavy life decisions. We challenge them to support students who are developing, and through a lack of our own support, prevent them from acknowledging they aren’t fully developed yet either.
What I have found through supervising and working with student affairs graduate students is that they need us more than ever! We talk about professional competencies, development theories and programmatic expectations, and for many, they try to listen beyond the yelling voices in their heads questioning if they are good enough to even be here. Many have left visible legacies at former campuses to join the ranks of aspiring professionals who question every bit of who they are. And for those who have mental health conditions, they try to manage it all under the expected facade of strength and confidence. What if they’re not ok? What if they can’t always fake it? They, too, are good enough and worthy of support as they become some of our field’s future leaders.
I chose my specific undergraduate institution because the housing options allowed me to have my own bedroom. While I didn’t admit it then, I was self-aware enough to know that nights were hard for me, and as someone struggling to control the manic-depressive, anxiety driven evenings while maintaining a student leader schedule, I needed space to escape. I’ve had a file with official diagnoses and countless pages of treatment notes for 12 years now. I spent a large part of high school trying new medicines and trying to live. In college I gained freedom and an extra 45 pounds from the three-med cocktail that numbed me enough to prevent tears from even being a possibility. During college I also went “cold turkey” from my medicines and treatment plan to prove I could make it on my own.
In graduate school, the turkey thawed, and my ability to cope lessened to dangerous lows. The smiles people saw in my assistantship and classes took so much energy that many evenings and weekends were spent like a hangover, waiting hours for the impact to wear off. The two years caused me to question everything I knew to be true, and as a graduate assistant treated like a half-time professional with very little support, I didn’t share any of my authentic feelings with professionals at work. During this time I transitioned through job functions and internships, multiple relationships, and differing stages of mania, depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation.
I’ll admit, I coped so poorly that people close to me shouldered far too much of the burden. And now as a working professional, I can say that I haven’t harmed myself in over a decade, yet the urge and feelings climb to the surface in my daily down time.
With that, as I think about my story and the students I see every day, I want to bring “health” to the forefront of this conversation. I want to pose the question of why “holistic” and “health” are key portions of every undergraduate wellness conversation, yet once students come back with “graduate” before their title, we stop prioritizing their overall well-being over needs for staffing late night programs and executive board meetings? Mental health is a part of being healthy and whole. The mental health of our graduate assistants and interns affects every bit of their ability to learn, be challenged and support our students.
So what do we do about this? Let’s start with being authentic about our lives. Before we jump to worrying about appropriate disclosure and sharing, we should start with asking, “How are you?” and encouraging an answer beyond “Fine.” We should pay attention to people who seem extra distant or fidgety and allow an extra pause after we assign 15 more items on a to-do list and assume they can handle it. We should also bring up conversations using words like anxiety, depression, hopelessness and overwhelming stress to normalize its importance in our quest to be complete and healthy professionals and people. In my work, I prioritize graduate students as people first. I allow for time in my schedule to talk about life, and I offer to take something off their plate when I can tell they need it. I also make it known early that their need to be real and potentially emotional will never tarnish the professional persona they simultaneously build with me.
For me, it is as simple as ask and affirm. I really ask how they are, how classes are going, what challenges they are facing, and what I can do to best support them. With every one of those answers, I look for how I can affirm. Simple, “I hear you” and “You’re doing a great job with that” moments can be the needed fillers between their internal anxious response of why everything is out of control. Other times, responses that allow them to dive deep into what they are really experiencing help them develop coping skills to balance the far-too-full plate we remember from our graduate school days. I will admit, I also pledge to be fully me at work, and when appropriate, that means sharing that mental health struggles are a part of my daily life as well. I normalize counseling and follow up to see how it went. I remember when stressful times in the semester are approaching, so I allot extra time in our one-on-one blocks to account for work and life talk. And above all, I reassure our graduate students that they are worthy of the support I provide. I won’t stand by and watch holistic undergraduate students become incomplete professionals who fear being able to admit when they aren’t okay. Our jobs are stressful, and the burdens we carry are often heavy, so in the two years they spend working with us, we owe it to our graduate students to meet them where they are and listen to understand, not just listen to respond. Mental health is just a piece of the puzzle, let’s make sure we allow it to be present in the first place. After all, we all work best when we are whole and healthy.
Caitlin (CJ) Jones is a proud queer and non-binary professional who aspires to meet students where they are and help them understand their role in their development. CJ has worked in multiple functional areas with true passions in the areas of social justice, identity-development, and holistic student success. CJ also aspires to publish many written works and use the power of stories to help people see that we are all in this together.