‘I don’t think that I can do this anymore’: A former RA breaks the silence about mental health and the struggles associated with the position

Daniel Passapera, Associate Photography Editor

Imagine responding to an incident involving self-harm and you can’t relate to, reassure or connect with the person.

Your title is to “provide personal and individual assistance to each student and (you) are responsible for the well-being of the unit,” but this situation isn’t in the job description.

It’s simple, right? Let the professionals step in and take control of the situation. However, the gap between suffering and assistance is traumatic for everyone in the room. This is what many Resident Assistants (RAs) across the country encounter while on the job. The mental toll the position brings leaves its mark on students, including here at Quinnipiac University.

College campuses have experienced increases of 40% or more in scenarios involving student alcohol abuse, drug use and instances of self-harm according to a 2014 study on RA self-efficacy. All examples of which Quinnipiac graduate student Mahlet Sugebo encountered in her first weeks as a sophomore RA in fall 2019.

“No matter how thorough the training, it doesn’t really mentally prepare you for the weight of the job,” Sugebo said.

Immediately put to the test on her first night, Sugebo was faced with a student experiencing a drug-induced asthma attack. She said handling a situation like this wasn’t something she was accustomed to, and that she was “shaken to the core.” Neither is what she would witness weeks later.

Responding to an incident of self-harm, Sugebo witnessed the struggle of a mental-health crisis but couldn’t react, restricting her emotions until a professional arrived. RAs are not allowed to directly intervene due to the risk of the student developing an emotional attachment.

“I wish I could have sat down with the person and talked to them from a personal level,” Sugebo said. “But at the same time, I’m like ‘how do I stop myself from having this very human reaction to want to just go and give them a hug.’”

In a position based on peer-to-peer connections, Sugebo ran into barriers finding her own connection with fellow RAs. It was hard to describe what transpired and the emotions that followed her after the incident. She was one of two RAs of color in her unit and felt a general “discomfort” disclosing any personal information that the other RAs “won’t understand.”

“That night I remember, going back to my room and I’ll be like, ‘OK, I don’t think that I can do this anymore,’” Sugebo said.

Given the stressful situations RAs encounter they are“particularly susceptible to experiencing a lower mental health status, or developing a mental illness,” according to a 2015 research project based on the mental health of college leaders and resident assistants.

Sugebo served two semesters as an RA, not returning after spring 2020. Many RAs like Sugebo leave their positions due to those stressors affecting their mental health. However, for some, witnessing these types of crisis situations has mental repercussions that can be prolonged if RAs experienced it themselves.

“They’re going to develop something like post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Clorinda Velez, an associate professor of psychology. “It might bring up other difficulties that you’ve had or you just already had to struggle with some really significant events in your life.”

Stressors are not limited to what you observe on the job but the time crunch as well, balancing being a student yourself while being responsible for up to 70 students.

In an accelerated program, on top of the rigorous commitment to being an RA, Sugebo felt as if she had no time for the true college experience — and she wasn’t alone.

“You’re going to talk to people about things that are going on in your life and there were times, where I’d say to my friends like ‘I’m sorry, I’m really tired,’” said a former RA who requested to remain anonymous for personal reasons. “‘I’m sorry I’m really out of it, I was up until 4 a.m. last night,’ and then naturally they’d be like, ‘why?’”

Sugebo isn’t the only RA at Quinnipiac to leave due to the mental toll the position can entail.

“I know there are a lot of RAs that I work with that had really, really stressful situations that took a toll on their mental health,” said a current RA who also wishes to be anonymous for job security. “Some of them even left being a RA because, I guess they didn’t know that could’ve happened to them.”

Despite RAs receiving eight to nine hours of mental health training and certification for 15 weeks in a semester, there are resources available on-campus for those who seek further assistance.

However, there are currently seven full-time and no part-time counselors as Director of Counseling Services Ariela Reder told The Chronicle. With an enrollment total of nearly 9,800 students, the ratio is 1,400 students to one counselor.

Sugebo was able to receive help from Counseling Services, but stressing self-care as an RA, or in general, is equally important.

“Sometimes you need to take a step back and recognize that self-care matters, that we have to sleep well, we have to eat well, we have to take care of ourselves,” Velez said. “You aren’t ever going to be perfect — that is just not a possibility — and so taking time to say you know rest matters too.”

Two years later, Sugebo is pursuing a master’s degree in public relations. After leaving her position as an RA she has seen significant improvements in her mental health.

“I actually had time to take care of myself in the time I used to spend doing work for Residential Life, which felt great,” Sugebo said. “I was no longer getting exposed to stressful incidents.”

In what is advertised as a financial incentive for tuition assistance with the ability to help others, there’s a lot beneath the surface people don’t normally see — the mental toll.

“I thought that the free room-and-board would be worth it, but I had to remind myself that I’m not going to college to be an RA but to get an education,” Sugebo said.

The Chronicle reached out to Residential Life but did not receive a comment before publication.

It’s not easy being a college student, juggling perfection, extracurriculars and with the added stressor of COVID-19, it can be especially hard. If you or anyone you know is going through a tough time, there are resources available within Quinnipiac’s Counseling Services. There are outside resources available through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration or the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Sugebo wrote four articles for The Chronicle from 2019-21