Resident assistants need more mental health resources – Massachusetts Daily Collegian

RA work is mentally taxing, and there are not many measures in place to ease this burden

Ana Pietrewicz / Daily schoolgirl

On April 27, the Resident Assistant & Peer Mentor Union organized a protest demanding higher pay at the University of Massachusetts. While I think this is an important issue to address, I wish they had fought for more mental health resources instead.

Being a residency assistant has given me the highest highs and lowest lows over the past two semesters. All in all, I’m so thankful for my experience. I came to work wanting to have a positive impact on freshmen, and from the warm messages on my whiteboard to the fun conversations and barbecues with my residents, I can safely say I’ve accomplished that.

But with those ups came a host of downs, because as an AR you have to deal with a lot of heavy stuff. Dealing with racism, sexism, mental health, roommate conflict, and so many other personal matters is part of an RA’s job. We are trained for these situations before residents move into the hallways. Regardless of any training, however, these issues can take a toll on your own sanity, especially when they build up over time or if you face a few tough situations in quick succession.

When you combine this with the typical day-to-day struggles of a student, the RA position can sometimes be too much to handle. And there’s no good way to get away from the role. If you are a short drive from your home town, you can go home for a weekend, which is encouraged by the residential life staff. But not everyone can afford to get home, and even if they do, it might not be an ideal option if you have homework or weekend plans. But since the ARs live in the building, the work never really stops unless they spend a night somewhere else.

I believe that the best resource for coping with these ups and downs that become so mentally taxing is therapy. We should always strive to de-stigmatize professional help, and counseling can be a great way to overcome any thoughts that are confusing your head. UMass offers free therapy sessions through the Psychological Health and Counseling Center – which is so important and a great idea – but these free sessions are limited.

At CCPH, students get four free individual sessions, or up to eight group sessions – you can mix and match group classes (which count as half of an individual session), until the total rises to four. But four one-on-one counseling sessions just aren’t enough for those struggling with mental health, which PRs are likely to be exposed to in the course of their work.

UMass has set a precedent in that ARs can derive some benefit from this role. The biggest of these is free on-campus housing, but there are other small perks as well, including discounted prices for parking passes. I think the additional free CCPH therapy should be considered one of those benefits.

Some of my peers have issues with CCPH and in my own experience I have found it can be difficult to schedule appointments. But setting aside any opinions, positive or negative, of the counseling centre, the CCPH overall remains a good resource that the University provides to students and Residential Life recommends to resident assistants facing serious problems in the work.

The positive impacts of increasing the accessibility of the center to every RA at UMass would be enormous. This would free resident assistants from some of the burden of work-related stress and could have a more positive impact on residents as a result, as they would be dealing with a less burdened RA.

My proposal to CCPH would be to offer a weekly group class specifically for PRs, outside of the four therapy sessions allocated. This would allow RAs to continue to seek dedicated individual counseling, whether for personal issues or issues related to the RA role, but it would also allow a dedicated space for RAs to come together and heal as a community that understands what other people in the room are going through. This seems like a more realistic option than allowing ARs unlimited counseling sessions, which would be the more ideal scenario.

RAs deal with a lot of things in their hallways, and while I wouldn’t trade my experience as an RA for anything in the world, I’m relieved to be leaving the job at the end of the semester because it’s too much for me. Going forward, I hope UMass takes steps to help resident assistants cope with the mental impact this work has on them.

Colin McCarthy can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @colinmccarth_DC.

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