“I think it is about figuring out how to make sure that I’m whole enough for helping others. So, whether that is going to counseling or going to church or going to the trivia, you have to find the support you have. “
(Dissertation participant, “Bernadette,” on how she views support in student affairs.)
Last month, I had the privilege of presenting my dissertation research on secondary traumatic stress in U.S. college student affairs professionals at the 2018 Annual Convention of the American College Personnel Association in Houston, Texas. After presenting, the session discussant, an ethicist from Central Michigan University, gave her feedback about my paper. In her critique she suggested that I consider focusing part of my manuscript on the ethical imperative of student affairs professionals to consider their own personal wellness in order to be fully capable of supporting their students. In the weeks since ACPA, her comments have stuck with me, compelling me to develop this month’s blog to reflect on how ensuring our own personal wellness is an ethical responsibility of those charged with the learning and development of students. However, before I begin it is important to understand what I mean by two key terms in this essay: professional ethics and wellness. Going forward, I self-define professional ethics as a standard set of values, rules, and dispositions that are collectively agreed upon that guide professional behavior. Wellness may be defined as an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence (National Wellness Institute, n.d.).
For most educators, standards for professional ethics are discussed at length through graduate preparation programs, conferences, or on-boarding processes. This holds true for college student affairs educators. In 2016, the two largest student affairs national organizations, NASPA and ACPA, published a joint document detailing the standards for professional competencies in the field, including a section dedicated to Professional & Ethical Foundations. In this document, personal wellness is mentioned 14 times (ACPA & NASPA, 2015). ACPA has also published its own set of ethical principles with two sub-standards that call professionals to their obligation to continually reflect on their own wellness as a function of their ability to fully function as a support person for students (ACPA, n.d.).
Other helping professions such as counseling, psychology, and social work have long-centered self-care and personal wellness as an essential part of providing helping services (Doran, 2014; Norcross & Barnett, 2008). The American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles of Psychologist and Code of Conduct (2017) codified this sentiment in section 2.06 (Personal Problems and Conflicts), stating:
The American Counseling Association Code of Ethics (2014, p.9) provides another example
Although the examples above provide a framework for a rationale to support an ethical imperative for personal wellness management in student affairs work, leaders in the profession may find it necessary to be more explicit in facilitating personal wellness as a necessary job function. Resources already exist that may assist in creating wellness-centered organizational cultures, such as ACPA’s Commission for Wellness and NASPA’s Wellness & Health Knowledge Community. Yet, these resources may be underutilized in many student affairs functional areas outside of Health Promotion. Through my dissertation research, as well as through numerous anecdotes from colleagues across the country, practitioners, departmental leaders, and supervisors are not addressing staff wellness as an ethical necessity of job performance and organizational functioning. To that end, consider the following questions:
Given the rise in student’s needs and decreasing budgets for student services staff in colleges and universities across the nation, I hope that leaders in college student affairs will consider the need for an intentional and ongoing conversation on how we balance students’ needs without sacrificing our own wellness.
Your Time to Chime In!
To what degree should attention to personal wellness be addressed as an ethical imperative within the profession of college student affairs?
What would this look like in professional practice and organizational culture?
Take a moment to comment below!
ACPA & NASPA. (2015). Professional competency areas for student affairs. Washington, D.C.: ACPA, College Student
Educators International & North American Student Personnel Association.
American Psychological Association. (2002). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. American Psychologist,
Doran, J. (2014). The unspoken truth about self-care. gradPSYCH Magazine. April 2014, 48.
Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2014/04/corner.aspx
Lynch, R.J. (2017). Breaking the silence: A phenomenological exploration of secondary traumatic stress in U.S. college
student affairs professionals (Doctoral dissertation). retrieved from ProQuest. (9780355348958)
National Wellness Institute (n.d.). The six dimensions of wellness. Retrieved from: http://www.nationalwellness.org/?
Norcross, J. C., & Barnett, J. E. (2008). Self-care as ethical imperative. The Register Report, Spring 2008. Retrieved
In May 2011, I began my professional career in U.S. college student affairs after graduating from the M.S. in Higher Education Administration (HEA) Program at North Carolina State University (NCSU). While those two years in the NCSU HEA program were some of the best of my life, I was also exposed to the realities of what a career in student affairs would really entail. By the time I graduated, my graduate assistantship and internship experiences, in both Fraternity & Sorority Life and Residential Education at three different universities, required me to play a significant support role for students experiencing a number of traumatic life events including: the death of a loved one, suicidal ideation, domestic violence, sexual violence, physical assault, life threatening injuries, extreme economic hardships, and debilitating mental health issues. In the years that followed, this list grew as I worked in other residential education positions, and later took on a doctoral graduate assistantship in multicultural affairs.
Assisting these students were some of the most impactful moments in my life, and I was grateful for the opportunity to be of service. However, despite some level of training, I often felt underprepared, unable to set and maintain boundaries for my own health, and unable to explore the impact of this support-work on my personal well-being, outside of a select group of my co-workers and family. Eventually, I sought professional counseling and came to truly understand the toll this work was taking on my personal well-being. Like many college student affairs professionals, I didn't think twice about putting my health and well-being second in order to provide consistent and meaningful support to the students I served.
By 2014, I entered the next chapter of my professional life, enrolling in a Higher Education doctoral program at Old Dominion University. Through a combination of serendipity, the encouragement of my graduate faculty, and a passion for supporting those who support others, I landed on my dissertation topic: Secondary traumatic stress in student affairs. Through two years of quantitative and qualitative data collection, I found that my story was not an isolated occurrence, and higher education professionals were eager to share their own stories of how trauma-support work has affected them.
Based on my professional and scholarly experiences, I decided to start this blog, Helping the Helpers, with the goal to raise awareness and increase dialogue about the impact of support-work on education professionals, from K-12 through graduate eduction. My aim is to start by posting blogs on monthly basis that address issues regarding trauma-support work through current research, best practices, my personal experiences, and stories shared with me (with permission, of course!). Upcoming blog posts will explore overarching trends that have emerged from my research and how these trends can inform the work we do in education. Please feel free to reach out if you have a topic you would like me to explore, or if you have an idea you would like to share! You can reach me here.
About this Blog
Helping the Helpers is a blog that centers professional helpers working in education-based organizations. Drawing from current research, my own experiences, and the narratives of past and present helpers, I address a variety of topics regarding the personal impact of professional helping including best practices, emergent innovations, and personal reflections.