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Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2022

Counsellors, caretakers, and cops

They're barely older than the peers they support, and they’re always on the clock. Resident assistants in Canadian universities speak up about a crushing emotional toll

Carly Penrose

The phone rings. It’s the call Alanna Stewart has been waiting for. One of her residents passed out at a party across campus. Stewart saw them down six shots of absinthe earlier in the night, so she isn’t exactly surprised. She ventures out to find the student, who is dangerously drunk, and then escorts them home from the party. Back at the dorm, the student goes to the bathroom, where they pass out on the floor. Stewart calls an ambulance. The paramedics arrive, but the student’s body is angled awkwardly, so they can’t be lifted. Stewart watches as paramedics drag the severely intoxicated teen by the arms across the tile before lifting the student onto the stretcher and taking them to the local hospital. She gets little sleep that night.

It’s not the first time Stewart has interacted with paramedics this year and it won’t be the last. But she can’t stop replaying the image of the student being dragged limp across the floor. She lies awake in bed, thinking about her resident in the hospital. Worrying. She gets up the next day at 5 a.m. to walk them home.

Now, five years later, as Alanna Stewart talks about her experience as a resident assistant (RA) at Mount Allison University (Mt. A), she keeps coming back to that night, even though it was just one tough night in a year of tough nights. She also remembers things like sleeping on a resident’s floor to monitor them after recurring medical episodes and breaking up physical fights. Dealing regularly with drunk, disorderly, or angry students, and with toxic roommate drama, eventually took its toll.

RAs at post-secondary institutions are expected to take on the roles of caregiver, rule-enforcer, and counsellor for other students. They are overworked, underpaid, and always on the clock. Although they are the first line of defence against the mental-health crisis affecting students, their stories of shouldering the trauma of their peers are rarely told.

RAs are live-in “paraprofessionals.” They are usually in their second year of university or beyond and, in most cases, in their late teens or early 20s. While small differences exist in their role from school to school, their job typically involves doing rounds on weekends, keeping residents safe, enforcing rules, and making new students comfortable in their transition away from home.

Mt. A is a university in Sackville, New Brunswick, with a student population of approximately 2,300 and eight on campus residences. When Stewart and I attended, the smaller residences had four RAs each, and five other student leaders, all of whom were tasked with helping first-year students adapt to their new homes.

“On my very first day as a first year at Mount Allison, I remember saying to [the head RA], ‘I want to be you next year,’” Stewart says. She started Mt. A at 21 years old, a little older than most first-year students coming fresh out of high school. “I felt like if I had to live with younger people, I wanted to have a purpose.”

Stewart was my first-year roommate. From the get-go she was deeply attuned to people’s feelings. A natural helper and fierce advocate for mental health, she spoke openly about her own experiences with bipolar disorder. Stewart was the model candidate for a Mt. A Resident Assistant, which the school website describes as someone who is “caring, has a desire to help others and an interest in building strong residence communities.”

In her first year, Stewart successfully intervened in a fellow student’s crisis, making her the top choice for assistant don (senior RA) in her second year. But she and the RA team that ended up being hired could’ve had no idea just how challenging and exhausting the year ahead would be. For many people with serious mental-health conditions, between the ages of 18 and 21 is when symptoms first appear. It’s a phase when the brain is developing rapidly. Combined with the massive transition of moving away from home, exposure to alcohol for the first time (for some), culture clashes, and even just learning to live with a roommate, it’s generally a chaotic time.

In recent years, directors of university counselling services have seen higher numbers of students seeking help with more severe concerns. A 2019 survey of over 55,000 students at 58 campuses across Canada found nearly a quarter of students surveyed were diagnosed with anxiety and nearly one-fifth with depression that year. Approximately 11 percent of students reported intentional self-harm and 16.4 percent considered suicide, while 2.8 percent attempted it at some point that year.

Meanwhile, studies of RAs found those with residents who disclose self-harm experience higher levels of burnout and compassion fatigue. The mental-health crisis is escalating at post-secondary institutions, with added stressors and isolation resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic being linked to poorer mental-health outcomes for students, including higher levels of depression, anxiety, and loneliness among students, with potential long-term effects. This means more high-stakes responsibility is being laid at the feet of young-adult RAs, who may be just as vulnerable to stress-related mental-health disorders as the peers in their charge.

Back in 2017, burnout on the RA team at our residence was already prevalent. By the end of the first semester, one RA had stepped back because of the pressure. Another, who remained on the team, needed regular breaks from the role to keep up with school work and protect their mental health. The remaining team members became overextended, and many seemed close to breaking point.

Morgan Kelter was hired to fill in for the second semester. She went into the role with enthusiasm, “I got a fanny pack and painted it with sparkles … and I remember I got a T-shirt.” It meant a lot to her to be making a difference for younger students as part of the residence team.

During her first week on the job, there were three campus parties, which meant three consecutive late nights and dozens of intoxicated residents. “I had done all three because everyone else was burnt out,” Kelter explains. By the end of that week, she, too, already felt worn down. It was obvious her colleagues were struggling. “People that I had known for two years that I had never seen cry, I saw cry for the first time. [There were] trips to the hospital for mental health reasons. Therapy,” says Kelter.

Kelter recalls one instance clearly. “There was drama going on in residence that we were dealing with that we probably shouldn’t have been dealing with. It probably should have been in someone else’s hands instead of some 19-year-old,” she says. Her colleague became overwhelmed and didn’t shower for days. There wasn’t time to shower, they argued, teary-eyed. The former RA says it wasn’t the volume of hours, but the hypervigilance, that made the role exhausting. “When you’re needed, you’re needed. And you have to make yourself available all the time.”

The school administration would tell them they were students first, RAs second, but if someone was hurting themselves, in danger, or suicidal, it wasn’t something you could ignore just because you had an assignment due the next day. And students develop a special relationship of trust with their RA, which adds to the weight of the responsibilities of the role. “We do find that for some of the most traumatic or difficult issues our students are dealing with, it is peers that they are most likely to go to,” explains Chad Johnstone, director of Residence and Student Life at Acadia University in Nova Scotia.

Kelter’s mental, academic, and emotional life were ultimately affected by the job. “I was just like ‘I need to stay in my bed, where I’m not accessible to anyone.’” Kelter says she had to go into counselling after her first week on the job. She started missing classes for the first time. She stocked her room with granola bars to avoid sitting with friends at the meal hall, just to get a break from other people’s problems.

One weekend, when Stewart’s stress levels approached crisis point, she booked a hotel in town just to get away. “You’re so immersed in it…. It’s definitely a mind-blowing experience. You can never escape … you never really truly get a full break.”

The number of hours on paper does not adequately reflect the time and emotional investment required of RAs. It makes fair compensation hard to calculate. On top of that, there’s a lack of standardization in RA pay, even in geographically close schools of comparable size.

At Acadia, RAs get a deluxe single room covered, as well as $1,500 toward their meal plan, compensation in kind of an approximate $10,000 value. At St. Francis Xavier (St. FX), community assistants (their title for RAs) receive a salary of approximately $8,800. Mt. A does not publish RA compensation rates, but administration shared that compensation has increased 36 percent in the last five years, though they also reduced the number of RAs, which consequently increased the workload. Based on Stewart’s stipend in 2016 to 2017, compensation for senior RAs today is likely around $4,800, with non-senior RAs making less. RAs’ room fees at Mt. A and St. FX are not covered, despite the fact students in these roles need a more expensive single room to carry out their duties.

Such significant disparities across schools for the same work reflect the different value institutions place on the contributions of their student leaders. It was the student union at Mt. A that was instrumental in bringing attention to the pay disparities between RAs at Atlantic universities, pushing administration to increase pay. Being transparent about RA compensation across schools gives students the power to recognize when they’re being underpaid, so they can organize to have their invaluable contributions better compensated.

Stewart says that while she had some supportive conversations with supervisors and school administrators about the overwhelming pressures she was experiencing, the RA team was her biggest support. “We went through so many intense moments together, and we collaborated and pulled together when we were all burnt out,” she says. “We were in misery together. I don’t know if we helped each other, but we always had each other,” Kelter adds.

While RAs had priority access to counselling at the school wellness centre, which many members of the team used, both Kelter and Stewart felt largely unsupported in the role. Having more RAs to share the workload, and opportunities to debrief more regularly with a professional facilitator, would have been helpful, Stewart says. Instead, the RAs had informal offloading sessions, “hanging out in my room all laying in bed, talking and venting.” Kelter suggested RAs could live in different residences from where they work, while still being accessible if needed, though she recognizes the drawbacks of that approach.

Mt. A has made changes since Kelter and Stewart were RAs. Residence Life has added a coordinator position, dealing specifically with student health and wellness. They say they’ve also expanded counselling services, adding mental-health, harm-reduction education, and social worker positions at the school for all students. RA training continues to evolve, too, and now includes crisis intervention and self-care programming. But, in the smaller residences there are now fewer RAs, and the ratio of RAs to students has gone from one RA for every 14 to 20 residents, to one for every 24, meaning RAs are taking on a higher workload in exchange.

Acadia now has a team of residence life coordinators on call to support RAs in crisis 24/7. They also run debriefs to help prevent overwhelm. There are more counselling services available now than there were five years ago, and there are programs specific to RAs from marginalized backgrounds to address additional stressors that they may be experiencing, says Johnstone.

But in light of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, which has amplified stress in students’ lives, it’s still not enough to ensure a new generation of RAs can fare better than their predecessors, the likes of Alanna Stewart and her fellow RAs. Jennifer Hamilton, executive director of the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services says, “When it comes to health and mental health, this is not a university and college issue. The increase in mental-health issues is a societal concern.” She acknowledges that while schools are stepping up their efforts to support students, without a coordinated approach addressing the gaps in mental health care outside of the post-secondary environment, not much will change.

Ultimately, addressing poor mental health at universities means addressing it in all areas of life, through government policy that prioritizes mental health. The unmanageable load for RAs won’t stop until we tackle the mental-health crisis among young Canadians on all fronts.

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