The Intersection of Mental Health and Career Support: The Roles of Counselor Educators
By Cassandra Hirdes and Lia D. Falco
Many colleges and universities were already working to address a growing mental health crisis when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this crisis for students (Chirikov et al., 2020; Wang et al., 2020). Now, we are beginning to see the collective impact of the pandemic on college students’ social-emotional wellbeing, career, and academic development (Horesh & Brown, 2020). In addition to the more typical demands associated with graduate school, such as coursework and academic pressure, students in counseling programs are also dealing with novel demands such as unexpected caretaking, prolonged social isolation, disruptions to daily routines, “zoom fatigue”, and economic instability. In this time of heightened stress and uncertainty, students across the country are simultaneously navigating unprecedented changes to the college and graduate school experience, while preparing to enter the job market during a time of increasing rates of national unemployment. It should come as no surprise that the pandemic has amplified student mental health concerns as well as their overall academic engagement. Indeed, mental health and career development are inextricably linked (Brown & Brooks, 1985; Tang et al., 2021). Now, more than ever, counselor educators must take a holistic view to support their students’ mental health and career wellbeing.
Mental Health Matters
Although counselor educators have backgrounds in counseling and can recognize the mental health struggles of their students, they do not serve in a counseling role. However, they can and should acknowledge students’ struggles and inquire about what supports they need. Then counselor educators can help connect students to on and off campus resources to hopefully help the student avoid compounding stressors and mental health concerns. Counselor educators may be in a position to lend support to campus student services professionals who work directly with students. In addition, colleges and universities should consider adding or increasing the number of peer educators (also known as peer mentors or peer advocates) who can provide career support during the pandemic era.
The college years occur during a time in development when students often experience a greater sense of loneliness (Qualter et al., 2015). This means during COVID-19 mitigation efforts such as quarantine, social distancing, online classes, and limited in-person social and academic supports can be particularly perilous for college students, even those who might not otherwise experience a mental health-related concern. Peer mentoring models are an effective and cost-efficient means of supporting students and the career guidance provided by peers is a way to facilitate needed connection. Such connections are important as studies reveal that relational health is directly correlated to college students’ psychological distress and socioemotional health (Frey et al., 2006).
Also, as individuals who focus on giving so much, now is the time to be “selfish” and consider your needs first. How can we continue to serve the students, when we ourselves are struggling? The unique situation of the time is that so much of what is affecting our students, is also impacting us. As new decisions are made regarding how and where support for students will occur in the future and when it is “safe” to conduct services that mirror pre-pandemic days, these new uncertainties add to our stress and feelings of uncertainty. Consider what ways you might center your own well-being and model those behaviors to your students.
Continue Career Interventions
COVID-19 has reminded us that the foundational needs at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy are important to consider first when working with students during this tumultuous time. In a recent Healthy Minds Study (Martinez & Nguyen, 2020), two-thirds of students report their financial situation has become more stressful while one-third report that their living situation changed as a result of the pandemic. Another study of 1500 undergraduate students (Aucejo et. al., 2020) noted that, for working students, 31% saw a decrease in their wages due to COVID-19 as well as a 37% drop in weekly hours worked, and approximately 40% of this sample suffered loss of a job, internship, or job offer. Finally, 61% reported to have a family member that experienced a reduction in income (Aucejo et. al., 2020). That said, before considering the future for a student, consider what it is they need today. Are their basic needs such as food, water, and shelter being met? Can you connect them with campus resources such as a campus pantry or housing and residence life to get them the support they need? What has shifted in their life over the past 12 months? What new concerns and considerations are pressing in their lives?
After helping assist them with their current basic human needs, it is imperative that there is continuity of career development services such as help with resumes, cover letters, and employment interviews as these practices support student agency and encourage a sense of “normalcy” in their lives. Although counselor educators do not serve as counselors to students, they can directly support counselor-in-training career development (ACA, 2014, Section Fb8). In addition, discussion of where to get employment and how to prepare for such employment provides students with the tools they need now and in the future. Discussions about the future can elicit hope as students are able to imagine a life beyond today. Assistance with decision-making and discussions that promote self-awareness can help students identify thoughts, feelings, and choices that can improve their self-efficacy and sense of agency. Students who feel a sense of purpose and direction are more likely to stay motivated and academically engaged as well. Redekopp and Huston (2019) note in their piece on the broader work of career development, “In essence, all career development interventions are wellbeing interventions” (p. 252).
Both Current and Long Term Development
The intersecting nature of mental health and career development work is especially helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic, and counselor educators are especially aware of the complexity and intersectionality of students’ lives. Knowing that the pandemic may continue to have long term impacts, we must stay vigilant in supporting students’ social and emotional development as an essential component of their long-term career development success.
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Cassandra Hirdes is a first-year doctoral student in the Counselor Education and Supervision program at the University of Arizona. She holds a Master’s Degree in School Counseling and has a background in Higher Education academic support programming. She currently serves as the Director of Health and Wellness Initiatives at the University of Arizona. In this role, she provides administrative oversight for professionally licensed counselors and manages Wildcats R.I.S.E. (Resilience in Stressful Events), a peer-to-peer Psychological First Aid program. Her research interests include innovative models of mental health care and the influence of student support services on college students’ mental wellness. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lia D. Falco is an Assistant Professor of Counselor Education and Supervision at the University of Arizona. Her expertise is in career development with research that explores how adolescents view themselves as future workers and how career issues are related to aspects of motivation and identity, especially in STEM. She has published numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals as well as several chapters, in addition to giving frequent presentations at national and international conferences. Dr. Falco has served on the editorial boards of the Middle Grades Research Journal, Professional School Counseling, and the Journal of Counseling & Development, and she currently chairs the NCDA research committee. She can be reached at email@example.com