If we aren’t counselors, what are we?

Every time I go into work, I meet with students. They come into my office, sit down in a colorful paisley chair and sink into a state of sometimes anxiousness, sometimes defensiveness, and sometimes comfort. Students know why they are in the session, the conduct office writes the explanation out within their sanction letter:

“You are required to complete UVM’s BASICS Program (Behavior Around Substance use In College Students). You will soon receive detailed instructions in an email from BASICS in your UVM email account.BASICS is confidential. In brief:

  • You will be asked to arrange an appointment to speak with a BASICS facilitator.
  • You will be asked to complete an online survey in advance of this appointment.

In order to complete this sanction on time, we encourage you to schedule the meeting with a BASICS facilitator as soon as possible. The totality of the sanction needs to be completed ‘fill in the date here’.”

When students also receive a notification from the BASICS team informing them that will be sitting in a confidential hour long session with a BASICS coordinator or facilitator counselor, they are told that they will be discussing alcohol use, drugs use, and themselves. For the entire hour they will have the spotlight.

As a BASICS coordinator, I am on the other end of the student in the spotlight; I am the helper. My job is to listen, ask reflective questions, and both validate and question the student’s perceptions on drug and alcohol use. Students often know nothing about me beyond my role, but there is an implied understanding that I am there to help. Thus, when I ask the question “How is your semester going?” their responses vary from “fine” to “I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression this year.” In fact mental health issues come up almost every single meeting I have with students. And as I have been sitting in these meetings and hashing out the ins and outs of how this student should receive support, a sense of mental and emotional exhaustion has been burning in the back of my mind.

Compassion fatigue is a term discussed in circles of counseling, nursing, and teaching but is something I only recently heard discussed in regards to profession of student affairs. It is the secondary traumatic stress one experiences from constant exposure to trauma within your profession. Environments student affairs professional may experience compassion fatigue are in professions that have high student contact within a helping role. The funny thing is, that would encompass many graduate students and most new student affairs professionals.

As conversations around mental health fill the ears of new student affairs professionals as we wrap our heads around how to properly support students and lend them help, who is helping these professionals with their own mental health? If more students are coming into college experiencing mental health issues, what impact is it leaving upon the new student affairs professionals who are interacting with those students? What we know is that the retention of the student affairs professionals in the field is very low, but it is unclear how much of that has to do with compassion fatigue. However, in my personal experiences as a BASICS coordinator I am not a counselor, yet students are coming to me to hold all of their problems and counsel them. Yet didn’t we ditch the counseling profession years ago?

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