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Superhero or Super Stressed
Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC
Thursday March 01, 2007
by: Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC

Section: Inside Insight

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Picture this: A student enters the school with a weapon, threatening to kill another student who has bullied him in the pas. An adolescent with whom you have been working attempts or completes suicide. An unknown man enters the school and takes students hostage, threatening to kill the students.

As horrific as these scenarios seem, they are becoming more prevalent then any educator would like to admit. Crisis response is no longer considered a peripheral base of knowledge for the school counselor; it is a core expectation. More often than not, crisis response planning is part of a school counselor’s job description.

Professional school counselors provide many services in the school setting. We are experts in students’ behavioral concerns and developmental issues. We develop an effective guidance curriculum and collect data to prove the effectiveness of our programs. We provide a support system for faculty, a shoulder for parents and advocacy for students. However, none of those expectations can match the level of intensity and overwhelming responsibility prevalent in a crisis response situation.

Because of our education and training, we are often principal figures in crisis plan development and often provide crisis response in-service training for faculty staff. School counselors are the school professional best equipped to assess the level of need for those affected by a  crisis and the ones most knowledgeable about community resources available for assistance in a time of need.

At times, especially during a crisis, it seems school counselors need to be super human, with the power to predict which students might become violent, identify parents who might pose a threat to others and ascertain which students are a danger to themselves or others. Enter Super School Counselor, faster than a speeding student, more powerful than a irate parent, able to leap over angry teachers in a single bound.

But like any other superhero, school counselors have limitations, and our own kryptonite seems to be lack of self-care. How can we be expected to do all and save all without looking at saving ourselves? Our own limitations can manifest into burnout or impairment.

Taking Care
There are many ethical aspects to consider in crisis response. However, the ethical mandate of self-care and professional competence is often overlooked. Often professional self-care takes a back seat to the training school counselors receive on crisis intervention, management and response. School counselors are typically members of the crisis teams and often are integral to the crisis plan development. We provide bully proofing programs and help create a climate of safety. We provide faculty and staff training on effective crisis response, and we provide leadership when an unexpected tragedy happens.

In providing all of that support, school counselors use their own life experiences to relate to how others may be affected by tragedy. We try to separate our emotional self from what students, parents or staff members are going through. Yet, when a school tragedy occurs, it affects the school counselor as much as or more than anyone else. While we are busy taking care of the everyone else’s emotional needs, we forget our own, which can result in burnout, anxiety and stress.

If we choose to ignore the impact this stress has on us, it may manifest into providing inadequate services to the very people we are trying so hard to help. In our effort to be super counselor, we overlook our own kryptonite – avoidance of our own emotional reactions and need for support.

What are some of the warning signs of burnout or impairment?

• decreased level of involvement with family and friends
• difficulty being genuine or emotionally engaged in personal relationships
• reduction of social interactions
• increased absenteeism and tardiness
• lack of empathy, poor social skills and social isolation
• increased preoccupation with personal needs
• denial of professional responsibility to students

If these indicators aren’t dealt with, they can quickly manifest into professional burnout or impairment. Since our primary professional goal is to support our students, we must be attuned to our own emotional limitations and be able to self-assess our own needs. Despite the school counselor’s tendency to want to be all things to all people, at some point we have to be able to step back and ask for help and support for ourselves without the feelings of guilt for making that request.

In an effort to self-evaluate your stress level ask yourself these questions from “Professional Liability and Risk Management,” published by the American Psychological Association.

• Do you ignore your problems out of fear?
• Have you learned techniques for managing stress, such as meditation, time management and relaxation training?
• Are you able to take care of your personal needs?
• Are you aware of the signs and symptoms warning you that you are in trouble?
• Do you listen to your family, friends and colleagues when they tell you stress is getting the better of you?
• Do you consider seeking help when you notice you are exhibiting signs of stress?

As you consider these questions, it is important to evaluate how to recoup the necessary energy and vitality that has made you such a valued professional. How can you proactively address professional burnout or impairment in yourself or your peers?

Giving To Self
School counselors encourage students to learn to take care of themselves in order to de-stress. Taking our own advice may be one of the most simplistic methods of burnout recovery. It is important to create a method of self-monitoring. An aspect of that self-evaluation should include asking ourselves why we offer support to others but we are reluctant to ask for it for ourselves. The effective school counselor develops a balance between giving of self and giving to self.

When you’re feeling stressed or burned out, seeking supervision is an effective way to maintain professional competence. Supervision from a counseling professional who can speak to clinical skills and ethical ramifications is more important in this type of situation than seeking supervision from a school administrator, who might not be aware of the skills necessary to be an effective school counselor. Additionally, collaboration between universities and school districts may help increase the number of available supervisors. Even establishing a professional development program of school counseling supervision might offer a more effective support system.

It is also vital to give yourself permission to seek emotional support either in a counseling setting or through peer support. This support may help create that emotional balance necessary to maintain a professional perspective.

Balance in your own life is necessary to function effectively in a professional role. Keeping this in mind can help you feel less selfish when you address your own needs. Self-care is an ethical mandate. Like Superman admitting his vulnerability to kryptonite, we as school counselors must admit our vulnerability to burnout and do everything in our power to adhere to this ethical standard.

Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC, is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs and chair of ASCA’s Ethics Committee. She can be reached atrwilliams@uccs.edu.