This Is Not Fine: Attending to Trauma, Burnout, and Fatigue in Students and Supervisees in 2020

Students were under significant stress well before 2020.

The millennial generation is the least wealthy, most indebted, and yet most educated generation in history (though they’re on course to be outpaced by Generation Z). Their lifetimes are characterized by constant economic and social uncertainty. Over the years, things have gotten worse.

Pre-pandemic, college student food insecurity, housing insecurity and homelessness, and economic stress were already substantial, and these crises have worsened under the conditions of the pandemic. Many of these stressors are not necessarily new. For the millennial and Z generations, however, all they have ever known is repeated and chronic trauma and the highest costs of living at the lowest wages and with the fewest social safety nets. Now, they’re living with a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and an unprecedented, uncertain U.S. political environment. Students from minoritized backgrounds (e.g., BIPOC students, international students, low-SES students) are facing these stressors in the context of increasing racism, and xenophobia. This is the context in which our master’s and doctoral students in counseling psychology are taking classes, conducting research, seeing clients, and supervising others.

Identifying Burnout and Fatigue

Recognizing the burnout and fatigue that our students are experiencing during this time can be a challenging task made more difficult by lessened contact. Additionally, burnout and fatigue may be disguised by behaviors that do not look like burnout. Students may demonstrate reduced class engagement, decreased energy, difficulty meeting deadlines, or reductions in work quality. Some supervisees may exhibit distress during their clinical work, such as a lack of emotional connection to their clients, misinterpreting client concerns, or disengagement. Of course, students may present very differently, and some may do an excellent job of hiding their distress. It is very easy for faculty – many of whom themselves may be struggling under the circumstances – to miss signs of student distress or misinterpret such signs as issues of competence or investment. A professional culture of invulnerability and high expectations may dissuade clinicians and trainees from help-seeking, and as such students may actively work to minimize their outward distress.

Addressing Burnout and Fatigue

We take seriously the quality of training that our students must receive, but we must also recognize the multiple layers of struggle that now exist at the intersection of the pandemic, election, and pre-existing systemic stressors. The current situation is not normal nor tenable, and we have to acknowledge this reality and work within it. It is also important to acknowledge that accommodations can look different from student to student. How, then, can we best support our students? One of the most important things you can do is talk to, and get to know, your students. Getting to know students and their real circumstances is core to supporting students!

  • Ask students what they need—especially students from minoritized backgrounds (e.g., students of color, first-gen students, low SES students whose realities and stressors routinely go unnoticed in higher education.
  • Support can be straightforward: check in with students via email or online discussions, let them know they are not alone, provide genuine care and understanding.
  • Advocate for student needs in faculty meetings as well as through institutional and political policy change
  • Send email reminders of classwork rather than through the learning management system, connecting students to counseling services or basic needs resources
    • Some students may seek and appreciate strict deadlines to keep them on task with their academic responsibilities. Thus, it is important – just like in psychotherapy! – to meet students where they are at and individualize support as best possible.

It is imperative that we remember that this is crisis teaching, not online/hybrid learning! The pandemic is worsening and political unrest is poised to magnify rather than quell. We must remind students (and, perhaps, ourselves) this year must be focused on completion and not perfection. By treating students (and each other) as humans first, we will be better positioned to get through each task and semester together.

Additional recommendations to consider:

Aisha Farra, M.A. (she/her/hers) is a graduate student in the Department of Community Health Science, Counseling, and Counseling Psychology at Oklahoma State University. Her research interests center around undocumented immigrants in the areas of resilience, trauma, academic/vocational development and outcomes, access to mental health services, and culturally responsive psychotherapy.

Melanie M. Wilcox, Ph.D. (she/her) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences and the Institute of Public and Preventive Health at Augusta University in Augusta, Georgia. She is currently Chair of the APA Board of Educational Affairs. Her research interests include racial and economic inequities in higher education, multicultural training and psychotherapy, Whiteness, racism, and antiracism.

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