With the rising awareness of mental illness in this country, more information about trauma and mental health on college campuses is becoming available. One in four people will have a diagnosable mental illness in their life time. One in five women will be sexually assaulted during their academic career. It is nearly inevitable that at least one person on your organization will either suffer from mental illness or be sexually assaulted or suffer from some other trauma. Schools have historically been ill prepared to handle such matters. These can be very delicate situations so proceed with caution. Here is a list concerns that I’ve encountered from members on my organizations: grades, home sickness, eating disorders, OCD, rape, suicidal ideation. You cannot control what will happen to people. But you can control how you and your organization will react. You can create a place that embraces compassion, respect, and healing. If you’ve successfully connected into the emotional fiber of your organization, people will come to you with their problems. If you haven’t or are uncomfortable facing such issues, realize that they won’t go away and will manifest in your organization regardless. Be prepared. You could be the last ray of light in someone’s darkest hour.
I’m not a licensed therapist and likely neither are you. In most cases, I would recommend referring the student in question to a professional. Practically however, students rarely feel comfortable talking to therapists about their problems, especially with the stigma surrounding such fields, so they turn to people they trust, their student leaders. This means that you are the first line of defense. This is a significant responsibility, often with no obvious correct path to follow. Understand that as a good leader, you are responsible for the mental health of the organization. However, you must also be cognizant of your own limits. I will explain the strategies that I’ve employed to deal with these situations over the years. I will also talk about some of the defenses you should enact to ensure that your own health does not deteriorate.
Since you are not a therapist, your goals for counsel should be limited in scope. For almost all individuals, difficult times are temporary. That’s not to say they are not impactful or dangerous. Rather, you need to realize that people generally seek help only during the worst of times. Therefore, your job is to provide short-term palliative care until the person feels stable enough to handle their issues on their own. In most cases, the end result is that they’ve recovered from the difficult period in their life. In some cases, the end result is that you need to refer them to a professional.
The first thing you want to do is to identify the resources that are available to you on-campus. Having these readily available and introduce them to your teammates during orientation. It’s a good starting point for introducing the concept of mental health to your team as well as passively granting access to such resources that may otherwise be ignored. While most people will come to you in confidence and will not act if you recommend the resources, it’s always a good idea to have the information on hand in an accessible location for those who wish to anonymously take the initiative to seek treatment.
NOTE: You have the right to refuse to assist someone with their issues. If you do not feel qualified or are not comfortable providing counseling, the direct them to an official channel for treatment. That being said, their issue may be time sensitive and require immediate palliative care. Strike a balance. It’s okay to say that you’re in over your head, but realize that for some individuals, you’re the last line of defense.
The most important rule you must introduce into your support is conditional confidentiality. For purposes of trust, it’s vital that you ensure a person’s confidentiality. That being said, there are some times when you will need to break this confidentiality. Namely, if you suspect that the person is planning to or is currently hurting him/herself or someone else. Communicate this condition up front, and you’ll avoid an ethical dilemma when you need to break a person’s confidentiality trust.
The second step you should take when providing someone with counsel is to give them back the power in their life. One of the themes that I hear most when an individual comes to me for guidance is a loss of control over some aspect of their life. Your job is to provide some perspective and give them a feeling of control. It’s important to note that your role is to provide guidance. It is not to get involved with the situation. In general, I categorize a person’s story into three broad points of concern. The issue will definitely be important to them, but you need to determine how important it is to you.
Limited Concern: If a person is coming to you to talk about home-sickness, trouble with grades, or the equivalent, this is a low-level concern. It might cause them to drop out of your organization at the worst, but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll need to take any drastic measures. Normally, freshmen will be the most common individuals with these concerns. Empathize with them and perhaps tell them how you got through the situation when you were a freshman. Then explain to them that they’re not alone, and that everyone struggles through the same issues. Offer any reasonable help or resources, and that should generally be the extent of the session.
Moderate Concern: Concerns in this area tend to be around a difficult life event or circumstance that will affect the person acutely but not chronically. For instance, the death of a family member, resurgence of a well-treated mental disorder, a breakup, etc. In these situations, you need to provide them with enough strength to get through the most difficult part of the affair. Remember that emotions are cyclical and there will be ups and downs. If a person is coming to you for help, they’re most likely at the down part of their cycle. Offer your condolences and ask them to walk you through the circumstances surrounding their situation. Try to get them to reveal what coping mechanisms tend to work for them and encourage them to use those mechanisms. If they’re not able to think of anything, offer some ideas of your own. Safe bets tend to be contacting people in their social circle, getting enough exercise and sleep, and taking a bit of time off if that’s possible. It’s infinitely better if the coping plan that you come up with is based on their frameworks and desires because that will put the power squarely back in their hands. They’ll feel more in control, and will be better equipped to deal with the issue.
Serious Concern: These are major concerns that tend to be chronic in nature and play a significant role in the happiness of the individual. Examples include depression, suicidal ideation, sexual or physical assault, etc. My primary recommendation is to find this individual a professional therapist and help them with the process of healing. In the interim, listen thoughtfully and help them process. Do not provide unsolicited advice, and do not badger the person about seeking treatment. Monitor the person as appropriate. Any large swing in approach to life, either good or bad, should be carefully noted. These tend to be the most dangerous times. Don’t be afraid to contact authorities if you feel that it could save a life.
NOTE: It can be very empowering to be the person that others go to for help. Especially if you have a strong propensity for emotional intelligence and therapy, you may find that you’re drawn to this type of work. It’s certainly an admirable quality, but don’t let the satisfaction you receive from helping others develop into a crutch. If a person is finding solutions to their problems and is getting better, it’s possible that you may feel a bit of loss. To be blunt, it’s almost like they don’t need you anymore. Remember that this is exactly what you want. You want them to be self-sufficient and to move on from their current challenges to greater challenges. You may be tempted at this point to criticize their success or to throw in mitigating factors to continue that feeling of being needed and desired. Don’t do this! Allow the process to come to fruition and allow the person you’ve been trying to help to accept the help that they desire. If people come to you for assistance, you are in a position of power. Don’t abuse that power.
This is all probably rather intimidating. However, it’s vital that you have a process so that when an issue inevitably comes up, you’re ready to deal with it. Most leaders should be able to and are responsible for dealing with level 1 concerns. Anything more is extra credit. Don’t forget that your main goal is to run an effective organization. While the mental health of your constituents can be vital in that process, know your own limits especially with this rather delicate area. Do not leave members without support, but do not provide support if you do not feel qualified. One nuance I will add is that this person came to you for some reason. So, if you don’t feel comfortable, you need to make sure you’re not giving the impression that you’re blowing them off. Express your gratitude that they trusted you with this problem and tell them that you don’t feel qualified to help. Then refer them to other resources and be supportive in helping them find and utilize those resources.
Now that we’ve discussed situations with regard to an individual, let’s talk about how to deal with trauma that affects your organization as a whole. At this point, you should be familiar and comfortable with normal team discussions. However, in the realm of mental health, there’s another type of discussion that can be more difficult to facilitate: process discussions. There may be a time when your organization encounters a difficult situation that’s not related to your day to day activities. For instance, someone on the team passes away or a major initiative crashes and burns. The process discussion is a period of time to allow people to discuss their feelings and grow closer. It can also be employed to process through emotions after the team has suffered a significant loss. Do some studying on emotional intelligence, cognitive behavioral therapy, and other aspects of discussion leading before attempting to plan one of these discussions. I will give you my thoughts which will provide a strong base of information and a launching pad for how to structure and manage these discussions.
The rules of these discussions should mirror the approach you take with individual conversations. Make sure to state that everything in absolutely confidential with the exception of information that suggests that someone is going to hurt either themselves or other people. Process groups can be intense sessions, they are best run after emotional events or trials. Such times of grief that affect all involved with the organization; having a safe space to freely discuss emotions is vital for healing to occur. You do not want such events to be a large elephant that constricts the breath in the room. Let people process the event together so they don’t have to suffer through it alone. Remember that shared grief is much easier to bear than isolated grief.
When running such a meeting, be kind, and realize that your role is mainly to facilitate. Here are the guidelines that you will want to follow:
It’s okay to express your own opinions or emotions, but be careful not to dominate the conversation. Especially as the leader, your team members will be looking for you for guidance. Provide a listening ear, and others will as well. A good time to contribute may be during a lull in the conversation especially at the beginning. If you lead off the conversation with your own feelings, you’ll implicitly give permission to your team members that this is a safe space and they’ll be more willing to share as well.
Have water and tissues available, and ensure that the room is at an appropriate temperature. Emotions may run high and you need tissues for people to wipe their tears and water to rehydrate them.
Let each person tell their story, but don’t let any single person dominate. Make sure you get to as many people as possible. As another logistical point, if you’re going to hold a process group, make sure you’ve slotted enough time to do this properly. Not slotting enough time for everyone to share is sloppy planning and could cause significant anguish. As a rough guideline, you’ll want to schedule 5-10 minutes per person depending on the composition of your group.
Don’t let negativity spiral out of control. And if that negativity is directed at another member of the group, stop it as soon as you can. Remember that these discussions are meant to be a time of healing and processing. Any attacks are to be considered intolerable.
If someone feels the need to leave the room, keep the conversation going, but make sure you send another member who’s in a reasonable emotional state to check on them. Do not leave any of your members alone especially if things are getting emotional.
Above all, you need to maintain control. Everyone will be looking at you. Know your limits, and if you cannot maintain your own composure, ask someone else to facilitate the meeting. If you break down, your whole group will dissolve into chaos. Keep your own composure. This will often mean that you do not get to process your own feelings as much as you’d like. So make sure to schedule additional time after the process group to talk with either a team member or someone you trust so that you take care of your own needs as well.
The magic of these discussions is simply to let people be there for each other and know that they’re not alone. Sometimes that means that nothing needs to be said at all. In these types of discussions, do not break comfortable silences. There’s a difference between a silence where people feel awkward about sharing and a silence where people need some time to lean on each other. Know the difference, and act accordingly.
Questions to Consider
If I were to ask you right now, what is the phone number and address of the closest student mental care service…would you know it?
If you’re in over your head, who would be the first person you go to for help? Could you keep your confidentiality agreement while discussing the situation with the person?
Have you spent energy and resources to ensure that a certain level of trust has been built between your teammates?