Often referred to as the eyes and ears on the ground, Resident Assistants (RAs) serve as the first line of defense if a situation arises among residents. But just how well are RAs trained to handle the growing mental health crisis thats impacting life at Stevens? The following article is a reflection on my experience with the mental health training I endured as a first-year RA.
Staff training begins roughly two weeks before the fall semester kicks off. During that time, RAs are on the clock from essentially 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. observing presentations, acting out scenarios, and getting messy with construction paper for bulletin boards. The presentations trained on a wide variety of topics including crisis response, fire safety, expectations on duty, active shooting, diversity and inclusion, and many others.
We also bore witness to a number of presentations specific to the mental well-being of both our residents and ourselves. The first of these was regarding the CARE team, given by Dean of Students, Kenneth Nilsen, and Health Educator and Case Manager, Gabrielle Guider. This training was specific to new RAs and highlighted the internal and external procedures surrounding a CARE report submission. CARE reports allow you to report anonymously or not, its your choice a non-emergency situation that you have observed about a friend. This notifies the proper individuals to reach out to the person youre worried about and try to provide appropriate resources.
The training itself focused on how and when to submit a report for someone. The training itself didnt teach me anything new, though I know that wasnt the case for everyone else. Indirectly though, it laid forth what I saw as a crucial message pertaining to our roles as RAs. We arent supposed to intervene and assist in the lives of our residents; we just exist to report and refer if something happens.
Following this, we were given a presentation on psychological warning signs from Director Dr. Eric Rose and Assistant Director Dr. Melissa Zarin of Stevens Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). This was a far more comprehensive session on how we can recognize symptoms of specific types of eating, depressive, and anxiety disorders that are common among college students. The list of things we were told we could have encountered was so extensive and niche that many of the symptoms taught were behaviors at which I never would have batted an eye. I felt the technical approach of learning the definitions and forms different disorders take, as well as the appropriate resources to refer residents upon diagnosis, worked very well to teach individuals at a science and technology oriented university.
Rose and Zarin also addressed the much darker topic of suicide prevention through a QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) certification a few days later. As we began to walk through the symptoms and signs to look out for, the realness and severity of what we were dealing with started to strike a chord in my mind. I vividly remember going over self-harm and being told by Rose that aiming to stop a resident from harming themselves is unrealistic. Instead, we should put our efforts toward trying to mitigate the damage they do to their bodies through safer cutting practices.
Up until this point, everything we had learned was a concrete if you notice x, then respond with y. For the first time, we were being told that the best approach was to be ourselves and connect as humans in these situations. I left the presentation mortified. We were just painted a picture of the most extreme situation that could happen the one no RA hopes to experience and left it at that.
I was afraid of having to handle anything we talked about. Yet, the more we talked about self-harm and suicide among residents, the more these ideas were brought down to Earth as something that can be handled and resolved just like a roommate conflict or work order. By having the harder conversations, I felt more confident that I would be ready for these situations, should they arise.
Sure enough, we put all the skills we talked about into practice later that day. A notorious part of RA training is called Behind Closed Doors (BCDs). Here, returning RAs act out real situations that new staff need to walk into and resolve. Inside the room are other RAs and professional staff from various departments to help discuss what can be improved upon after youve enacted the scenario. Though stressful to go through, the pseudo-experience provided from BCDs most directly translates to what we need to deal with on the job. Whether it was an eating disorder reported from a roommate, or a resident having suicidal desires, they were all very realistic and applicable. Despite the pressure from all eyes on you, being able to receive real-time feedback on how to better approach an issue through body language, tone of voice, word choice, etc. is unparalleled in value. If I had to choose one part of the training that best prepared me for my role, it was performing BCDs.
From here, the conversations in training started to shift slightly towards our own self-care and living a generally healthy lifestyle. Guider presented later that week on the wellness model she prepared for our university. She elaborated on each discipline of wellness needed to make healthy living more attainable, including physical, mental, spiritual, financial, and several others. Each of these categories was applicable to our own lives, as well as the lives of our residents seeking advice, and how we could better partition our time to be more mentally well.
With that we concluded any direct training for addressing mental health before we opened the doors and met our residents for the first time in the fall. Though I wont elaborate on them, there were still plenty of presentations indirectly tackling the mental health of our residents, such as roommate conflict mediation or how to confront a resident with care.
Additionally, during our winter training, we performed additional BCDs and listened to an informative presentation from Rose on seasonal depression and other things to expect with our residents returning from break. RA Daniel Raleigh also gave his own presentation titled Who Counsels the Counselor? that opened discussion on how to appropriately approach having an emotional investment in the lives of our residents and proper practices to distract and recover from the situations we experience.
Bearing the weight of the mental health and well-being of dozens of new college students on our shoulders sounds intensive and stressful. To call the role of a RA anything less is an understatement. Its truly impossible to comprehend what we go through without actually experiencing it first hand.
After surviving my first semester as an RA, I feel comfortable saying that what we learned in training was an accurate reflection of what we experience day to day. It prepared me well to handle any and every situation.
When you become responsible for your residents in the eyes of the university, you want to do anything you can to see them succeed. My greatest personal challenge has been balancing the emotional and professional investments I have in the lives of my residents. With all of the terrifying shortcomings and scenarios I was taught to prepare for, Im content saying that my weakest area thus far has been caring too much.
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