Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Why So Glib? Alcoholism, Suicide, and Other Tragedies about Which RHDs Joke

Too many times, I have heard a Student Affairs professional jokingly proclaim, “I need a drink after the duty week I’ve had” or “if I have to write another RA evaluation, I’m going to shoot myself in the face”. Once upon a time, I would have never thought twice about what these hyperboles mean to those around me and would have never second guessed whether I should be repeating them. However, since working in Student Affairs, I have realized how powerful these ‘innocent’ phrases can be to the students and staff who surround us and look to us as role models.

Just because we are role models to a couple hundred students, does not mean that we are perfect or that we should be perfect. It simply means that we must be aware of what we say and be intentional in what we do. For some college students, alcohol abuse, suicidal ideations, and other tragedies are real ordeals they struggle with each day. Hearing a hall director joke about needing a few shots of Jack to handle another week of live-in duties may make a student dealing with alcoholism rethink their decision to ask for help. They may shy away, believing that their hall director will never understand how the one beer on a Friday night has snowballed into binge drinking three times a week.

The same can be said when we exaggerate about how bad our day, week, or semester is going and we utter the phrase, “Just kill me now”. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry “suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15-to-24-year-olds” (http://www.aacap.org/galleries/FactsForFamilies/10_teen_suicide.pdf), which makes it possible for not only our college students to have suicidal ideations, but for professional staff to either struggle with these same destructive thoughts or to have had a friend commit suicide. I’d like to think that most of us are not serious about ending our lives over a stressful night on-duty; however, we need to reconsider how this comment, made in passing, may affect which course of action a depressed student takes. Additionally, think about how cutting your comment can be for a peer who has lost a friend or relative to suicide or who may have attempted it before.

When I was a senior in high school, a classmate killed himself allegedly over drug use and depression. In college, I drank too much and had bouts with self-mutilation. When I hear my peers make light of suicide, depression, anxiety, and alcohol or substance abuse, it diminishes what respect I have for them. Granted, they do not know my background or what I have gone through in my earlier years; however, their comments make me reluctant to share these raw details about my life out of fear that they will not be taken seriously.

Remember, if you are a live-in professional, administrator, or a parent, you have the responsibility to be a supportive role model for your students, your staff, or your children. It takes courage to admit an addiction or to ask for help with a mental health issue. By poking fun, professional staff members are adding another obstacle over which the student must climb in order to reach someone who can support them. Our job is to make things easier for them, not more difficult.


  1. Your posts are always so timely. Last night, an RA on another staff talked about their goal to quit smoking and had gone 3 days without lighting up. While I congratulated her, I jokingly said that it could be a gateway to other things like crack or free-basing cocaine. She laughed and walked away, but my colleague (her supervisor) standing next to me said her brother was a recovering cocaine addict. I never felt so smal and disappointed in myself.

    We have to find humor in our jobs, but we must be cognizant that it is not at the expense of others whether we know it or not.

  2. I agree to an extent with what you're saying (and for the record, I love reading your blog). I think it is impossible to know what every person is going through at any point in time. I think jokes like these are totally appropriate to make as a coping mechanism, but there is a time and place.

  3. I think this applies to more than live-ins, parents, and administrators; it applies to everyone. Good words.