Higher Education Ph.D. Dissertations


Hidden, Supported, and Stressful: A Phenomenological Study of Midlevel Student Affairs Professionals' Entry-Level Experiences with a Mental Health Condition

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Higher Education Administration

First Advisor

Maureen Wilson (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Michael Coomes (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Neal Jesse (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Hyun Kyoung Ro (Committee Member)


The purpose of this phenomenological study was to understand the experiences of midlevel student affairs professionals who navigated a mental health condition as a new professional and remained in the field. New professionals’ attrition and retention concerns continue to warrant further exploration through research. Research is lacking on new professionals group was those with a mental health condition. Mental illness is prevalent in our society, and as evident in this study, professionals do negotiate their mental illness as professionals in the field.

I interviewed nine midlevel student affairs professionals from across the United States. Each of the professionals worked at a variety of institutions and within many functional areas in student affairs during their first five years in the field. I lead eighteen interviews with nine participants. In addition to the interviews, all of the participants responded to one journal prompt. To mask the identities of my participants, the professionals selected pseudonyms and I used these names throughout my manuscript.

The participants shared their experiences comprising five main themes: (1) coping with mental health conditions, (2) student affairs competence and mental health, (3) influential relationships, (4) disclosure, and (5) organizational influences. Three primary findings emerged following the analysis of the experiences and the review of the literature. Participants experienced fear of discrimination. They shared about negotiating the personal nature of the experiences and their own self-advocacy. Lastly, the professionals’ community was instrumental in connecting to their retention.

With these themes and findings, I developed implications for practice and future research. Implications for practice include a proposed paradigm shift in our organizations; the important role of supervisors, administrators, and colleagues; the use of a universal design model; and the value of structures to support those with mental health conditions. Future research could explore the identities of people with a mental health condition, the various community structures, and the role of the influential relationships in coping with a mental health condition.