How Student Affairs Pros Can Support Mental Health

[Content warning: The following post contains references to suicide, depression, anxiety, and self-harm, which may be triggering for some readers.]

It’s suicide prevention week — a week that always brings up a lot of feelings for me as a survivor of multiple suicide attempts.

Suicide is not an easy topic to discuss — it took me a long time to become comfortable talking about my experiences, and now I work very hard to destigmatize how we have these conversations with our colleagues, with our students, and with our friends. I’ve sort of made it my modus operandi as a professional to talk about the uncomfortable topics.

And yet, conversations on mental illness within our field still seem very surface-level and focus more on talking around the issue than getting to the heart of it: that we are losing students, colleagues, and friends on a daily basis because of suicide.

That’s reality.

As student affairs professionals, we do not take care of ourselves very well. We are of a field that glorifies — and almost requires — working absurd hours that blur the lines of where work ends and life begins. And I personally reject the sentiment that if your job is your “passion,” you shouldn’t mind working so many hours because we “love what we do.”

That’s not an excuse to work yourself to the bone. 

We are not happy, whole people. And that’s okay. I embrace being broken because I’m not perfect — far from it. If you’ve met me, you know that I’m a mess of a person.

We need to not only take better care of ourselves, but we need to take care of each other.

For as inclusive and authentic we attempt to be as a field, we don’t always practice what we preach, and this creates a dichotomy that makes it difficult to discuss our mental health with our colleagues, let alone our supervisors.

But that’s where we need to start the conversations: with our supervisors. I’ve heard too many of my colleagues tell me they could never discuss their mental health with their supervisor because they fear how their supervisor would react. That’s not okay.

The second day of my new job, I had a conversation with my supervisor about my mental health and laid out a lot of my experiences with depression, anxiety, and how my suicidality impacts me every day. I told her that there have been days where I just can’t get out of bed, or that I might have an anxiety attack during work. In those moments, I simply asked that she recognize my circumstance and give me some space to take care of myself in the ways I’ve found that work for me.

It was pretty scary to be so upfront about so quickly, but it was important to me — especially working in a wellness office — to be clear about how my brain works. If I wasn’t able to work with my supervisor on some workplace accommodations, I likely wouldn’t have been able to stay at that job very long.

My supervisor was incredibly supportive and continues to be — even now enlisting me as a resource to our students for discussions on emotional wellness. It’s invigorating to have so much support from a supervisor. We talk about what’s going on inside our brains a lot — some would probably think too much, but it works for us!

I’m aware that I am anomaly in this relationship with my supervisor. And that’s not okay.

I want us, as a field, to promise that we stop perpetuating so much of the judgment, stigma, and fear that keeps us from being open and honest with each other about our mental health.

None of us are immune to mental health issues. Be willing to ask your colleague if they need a night off from duty or an event because you can tell that they’re a little fried. Offer to take someone out to lunch or coffee if they look like they could use a friend.

Or just listen to someone if they appear to be in need of some support. Don’t talk over them or make it about yourself — just let them have space to say what they need to.

Just listen. It’s a surprisingly easy thing to do.

I get that it can be hard to walk up to someone and ask them if they are feeling okay, but in my experience, it’s better to ask and find out they’re okay than to worry about them later.

We are capable of doing so much good for each other without invalidating the very real ramifications of not taking care of our mental health. Showing compassion for others in our field when we are suffering is important. Believe your colleagues if they tell you they are struggling with depression or anxiety, and especially if they are having suicidal thoughts. Be strong with them. Be a good friend. And help them find professional support if necessary.

If you have sick days, use them for mental health days! Our brains get sick, too — it’s okay to take time to wrangle your brain. Ask for a little extra time on a lunch break if you need it. Use your lunch break to exercise if that’s an essential part of your wellness plan. Talk with your colleagues about your mental health — especially in the moments where you feel alone, because chances are you are not.

Depression is a silent killer. We cannot allow it to run rampant as we try so hard to be perfect employees and resources for students. We must confront this in a cohesive and supportive manner.

If you are a supervisor, be like my supervisor. Have some compassion and empathy. Be more aware of the conditions of the people who work for you. Be better. Reach out to the people who work under you and ask them how they’re doing. Adjust their workload if necessary. Allow your workers to use sick days for mental health days. Or hey, be super cool and don’t make them use accrued time off as a means to take care of their brains.

And if your supervisor just isn’t supportive, speak with your HR office about workplace accommodations — they’re protected under the ADA.

In the event that your supervisor is the reason you are having mental health issues, know your resources on campus. Find your allies — whether they’re in the HR office, the Dean of Students office, or elsewhere — who can help you navigate these conversations with your supervisor. Also, find out if your institution offers an EAP (Employee Assistance Program), which could get you accommodations for counseling and therapy as an auxiliary of your health care benefits.

All of these things are good to know if you are worried about retaliation, because it is against the law to be fired for having a mental illness — thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Accommodations for mental illness needs are not hard.

These accommodations take minimal effort and it could drastically transform the way we function as a field.

I want the people who work in this field to succeed for the future and longevity of our field. I’m sick of seeing our massive attrition rate stay constant because people get burned out so quickly — therein wasting years of work they put into their Master’s degree (if they got one), and dedication to students, only to feel like they were chewed up and spat out like another cog in the system. It’s not good for the perception of our field and sends a terrible message to those who want to enter it.

We might be broken people, but we have the chance to take the messiness of life and turn it into something transcendent if we just take a moment to care for each other.

If you, or someone you know is in need of support, here are some resources you can turn to:

Suicide Prevention Lifeline1-800-273-8255

Trevor Project Lifeline1-866-488-7386 (chat and text also available)

Trans LifelineUS: 877-565-8860 CA: 877-330-6366

Crisis Text LineText HELLO to 741741

Art of Survival: artissurvival.com

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Craig Bidiman

About the author: Craig is the Health Education and Wellness Promotion Specialist at the UMass Boston, and is a Co-Founder of the Art of Survival. He also hosts the EduPunx podcast. Craig has extensive work as a facilitator on issues related to sexual violence, bystander intervention, masculinity education, consent, and sexual health and wellness. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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