ACA MEMBER BLOGS

Blogs written by and for ACA Members.

Find our member blogs by member name here!

Jul 7, 2023

Back to School: Youth Mental Health

Emily St. Amant:

Welcome to the Voice of Counseling from the American Counseling Association. I am Emily St. Amant, and joining me today is Dr. Jessica Holt, who is here to talk about supporting the mental health of students. Dr. Holt is a licensed professional counselor and a school counselor. She has been working as a counselor since 2010 and has a doctorate in professional counseling and supervision. She spent the last nine years in a school setting and has experience working with middle school students and currently works at the high school level in the Atlanta area. Thank you so much for joining us today, Jessica. How are you?

Dr. Jessica Holt:

I'm good. How are you?

Emily St. Amant:

Awesome. Doing well. So just to jump into it here. So we've seen a lot on the news about the mental health crisis in general and the mental health concerns of children and teens has been making a lot of headlines. So we hear about this on a pretty big scale, but can you maybe talk to us about what you are seeing firsthand, what the students you work with are experiencing?

Dr. Jessica Holt:

So, I'm seeing a lot of students that are in emotional distress, more than in the past, like pre-pandemic. But the number one thing that I see with my students is anxiety, and that could be panic attacks, that could be them shutting down in class, avoidance, just a lot of not being able to handle things and maybe not having the coping skills, that when problems come up, they don't know how to handle it. So that's the number one thing that I see with my students.

Emily St. Amant:

So they are more anxious, but then also having more difficulty handling, maybe things that you haven't seen people or students struggle with as much before, right?

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Right. I would agree. Because they're having to adjust to being back in school and being back in a community setting, and so having to figure out how to navigate things, when the problem arises, is something that has been a challenge for a lot of those students.

Emily St. Amant:

So readjusting. So the schools were shut for a while, and so they were at home and so getting back into the groove has been really difficult for a lot of them?

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Yeah, absolutely.

Emily St. Amant:

I think that makes sense. So when it comes to how you and your colleagues are responding to those mental health needs that are showing up in the students at your school, what are some of those ways that y'all are responding to that?

Dr. Jessica Holt:

So we do a lot of things here in our school as a counseling department. We have lessons on character development, careers, making good choices. We meet a lot with students individually and sometimes in groups, but we also spend a lot of time collaborating with their teachers and the other staff, and then also communicating with their parents. So we do a lot of meeting with the students here, but we also provide a lot of resources and support to the students and their families.

Emily St. Amant:

So school counselors act sort of as prevention professionals when it comes to supporting the mental health and emotional wellbeing, physical, even health of the students. And y'all really can intervene early-

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Right.

Emily St. Amant:

... to get skills or resources for families?

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Right.

Emily St. Amant:

So it sounds like y'all really do try to address the whole picture?

Dr. Jessica Holt:

We do. So we do a lot of one-on-one meetings with students, but we also have some school-wide programs that we do for suicide prevention, for learning about careers. We do a lot with schedules, transcripts, grades. We also have a CARES initiative here in our school system and in our community. And so it's a partnership with government leaders, the faith community, businesses, families, so that we're promoting the values of respect, support, and appreciation, not just here at the school, but in multiple environments. So that is a big initiative here where I'm working, so that they're learning a lot of those values at school, but if they go home, if they go to church, if they go to work, they're not just getting that message in one place, they have a wraparound of support.

Emily St. Amant:

Oh, wow. So y'all are really making sure that the support extends out into the community, as it doesn't just stay with the focus on that one child or teen, because we know that they are so impacted by their communities, right?

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Yes.

Emily St. Amant:

They are minors, they are dependent on the care and support of those around them.

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Absolutely.

Emily St. Amant:

So that's just so amazing to hear that the work that's being done to really support them. And you have experienced, so people think of counselors, there's different types of counselors, and even some of us still get a little confused about the differences. So you were a mental health counselor, providing mental health therapy before you found your calling to be a school counselor. So when it comes to the difference between a mental health counselor and a school counselor, can you just quickly summarize that for our listeners?

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Sure. So in both of those roles, you are focused on helping and the wellbeing of the individual that you're working with but school counseling is very different. So the first major difference, other than being in a school setting obviously, is that we have to keep it brief. Our goal is to help the students to be stable and to calm down and to be okay. But our ultimate goal is to get them back to class because they're here for instruction. And so a lot of times we're meeting with students for 10 to 15 minutes, and then we're getting them back to class.

The other focus is, it's the school setting. So we're focused on the academic, we are focused on social and personal issues, but we're not providing any kind of treatment. And if there's any signs of mental illness, anything that is more severe, then we do a referral to a provider who is in mental health. So we'll provide those resources to the family, to the parent. We can't tell them, "Hey, you need to send them to this person." But we can say, "Here's some resources that our families have used and that have been successful."

Emily St. Amant:

Okay, that's awesome. So I think everyone needs mental health support, people at schools, especially in high school, being a teenager is a really tough time in life. So having just some general support, I think is really amazing. But then you can intervene if you notice signs and symptoms. And then we know about prevention, the sooner you can get someone support for what they're experiencing, the long-term, the fancy word would be prognosis, but the long-term outcome is much better.

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Right.

Emily St. Amant:

So I think that that's really great that y'all are able to do those sorts of things and right there where they are.

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Right. We definitely try to be very supportive and there are times when we have to do crisis intervention. And so if a student is a danger to themselves or to others, then we do crisis intervention and we do contact the parent and we let them know what's going on and we give them resources for that, as well. But we're not doing any kind of official assessments or 1013, anything like that here at the school.

Emily St. Amant:

Gotcha. So it's like you have your lane that you stay in, right?

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Yes.

Emily St. Amant:

Where you are just a source of support, prevention and referrals to get at least an assessment, to see what they could benefit from?

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Yeah. Yes, absolutely.

Emily St. Amant:

Great. So having experience in both. So you know the difference very well because you've done both, providing treatment and being a school counselor.

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Right.

Emily St. Amant:

So I'm sure those two different experiences working with kids, providing therapy, but then also being a school counselor, has given you a lot of insight into what a young person needs. So can you speak to maybe the adults that are listening in, when it comes to what they can do to support the mental and emotional health of the young people in their life? Just in general, maybe teachers, parents, other family members, caregivers, coaches, and anyone else who cares about a young person?

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Absolutely. There are a lot of things that you can do if you're an adult and you're trying to help a young person. And the first thing is just to be available and to be present. So giving them that time and making them feel like they're important is one thing that you definitely can do to help. There's some other things that you can do, as well. So making sure that you're listening to what they have to say and that you're not being judgmental, which is very important because no one wants to open up and tell you what's bothering them, if they feel like one, you're judging them or two, you're going to tell them what to do and get onto them.

So being able to listen in a non-judgmental way and trying to help them make their own decision about how to move forward. So even though you might be discussing the options with them, you're not saying, "You have to do this." You're trying to help them be more independent and autonomous, so that they can make those decisions themselves. And then also just being very compassionate. So making sure that they know that you care about them and they can tell, teenagers can tell when you care and when you really want what's best for them, and you're being supportive. And we actually call those people trusted adults. So somebody that is available, that's not judging them, and that is very compassionate and that cares about what happens with them and the outcome.

Emily St. Amant:

So just kind of sum all that up. To make sure that you actually are listening to them and I think so many of us listen to respond. I guess the term for that skill is, active listening. So you're listening into what that person says, focusing on it, not just thinking about what I'm going to say next, what I think this person should do. And I think that really helps people be able to actually support that youth. Because you said, if you just tell them what to do, then that's kind of making them a little dependent on you. Right?

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Right. Absolutely. Yeah, you don't want to make them dependent on you, but you also want to make them feel safe because you don't know what they're coming to you with. If they've had some kind of experience of trauma, abuse, neglect, you don't necessarily know. And so you want to be making them feel safe, and you definitely want to demonstrate empathy.

Emily St. Amant:

So really actually paying attention goes a long way. And then I don't think anyone likes to be told what to do, so that's not helpful in any relationship, is you being just like, "Here's what you should do." It's like, "How can I support you as you're figuring this out?"

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Right.

Emily St. Amant:

And then like you said, I think teenagers can read us better than people think. Right? They can tell if once you walk in the room, if this person actually cares about me or not. And so making sure that you're checking where you're coming from before you approach them, if you're concerned, or if you want to talk to them about mental health or whatever, just making sure that you're coming from that place of, "I really care about what's best for them." And that really goes a long way.

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Yeah, and that you're staying calm.

Emily St. Amant:

Yeah.

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Because sometimes you don't know what they're going to tell you. So making sure that you're having an appropriate response and that you're just, like you said, you're keeping yourself in check and you're responding appropriately, but that you're not overreacting and that you're just staying with a calm affect, is really helpful.

Emily St. Amant:

Yeah. Because I think that we underestimate the level of distress that children and teenagers are under, right? Because kids can feel big emotions during adolescence, we all know about the hormones, but even cognitively, your brain's basically restructuring itself. That's stressful, that puts a ton of stress on them and then there's social pressures and everything.

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Right.

Emily St. Amant:

So just to make sure that you can be a calm presence, to really give them that support, I think is so important to remember. So you spoke earlier about some of the signs, where you might recommend a parent or caregiver to look into an assessment for some other services or types of support for mental health. So what are some of those signs that a young person might be experiencing, mental health or emotional health concerns?

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Okay. So some of those signs that someone might be struggling or going through something really difficult, if you see a change in their appearance, their appetite, their sleep pattern, their attitude, some of the academic things, like their attendance, their grades, the people that they're hanging around with. If you notice that they're starting to isolate themselves, if you see any kind of major changes in those things, then there might be something going on and you might need to check on them and see what's going on and if you can help them.

Emily St. Amant:

Okay. I think that's changes, anything outside of-

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Yes. What changes?

Emily St. Amant:

... yeah. And there's a lot, they're going through so many changes and phases. There are phases, and especially when teens are figuring out who they are.

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Right.

Emily St. Amant:

So they might try on new clothes or maybe even a new set of friends, but when it comes to maybe more than one, bigger changes than that, right?

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Right. And if you see that their overall functioning is different, if they're going from being an A, B student, to now it seems like they don't care and maybe they're not turning things in or they're failing or just any kind of major change, they stop going to school, they start isolating themselves. Those are signs that something is going on with them. So just really paying attention. And a lot of times those students, they do come to us and they let us know that something is going on and that they need help. But in all honesty, it's often the people that see them every day. So their friends, their parents, their teachers, their coaches, people that see them from day-to-day and that know that that's not their normal, something is going on. And a lot of times it's those people, that will say, "Hey, can you check on this person? Something is not right."

Emily St. Amant:

Yeah. Okay. And then it's good that teachers and coaches know to do that, that they can see that and they can have you check on them and I think that's important. It's like you said, some kids go to you because they know you're there, they see you around, you're a friendly, warm presence, and so that they know that they can go to you. But I think it's important for us to keep an eye out on the young people that aren't that comfortable broaching that or going to ask for help.

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Right.

Emily St. Amant:

Because I think that sometimes, it's the people that maybe are a bit more reserved or just very private, or it's just not normalized, asking for help and people fall through the cracks.

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Yeah, absolutely. And a lot of times we see, if they are more reserved, there are a lot of times that either their teacher will come up here with them or that maybe their friend will bring them. So if they're afraid to come by themselves, if they're not comfortable, if they don't know where the counseling office is, having somebody come with them, so they're not doing that alone, is really helpful.

Emily St. Amant:

Yeah, I think that's great because it's like, you've got to look after each other. And having that support makes it a little less scary because I think if you've never talked to somebody about whatever they're experiencing before, I think a lot of us forget how difficult that can be. Right?

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Yes.

Emily St. Amant:

To actually share for the first time, if you're experiencing mental health or emotional stress or a lot of stress in your life, to actually talk to someone else about that, can be a bit overwhelming, even for us adults. So cutting kids some extra slack there, is really important. So when it comes to teachers, parents, other caregivers, who maybe don't know when to turn to a professional for more help or even how to go about doing so, can you share some thoughts about how to best access, just seeing if you're the young person can benefit from support?

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Absolutely. Any time that you see a significant change or a major difference in their behavior, their academic performance, their emotional state, then it may be time for you to seek professional help. If they are a danger to themselves or others, if you know that they've been self-harming or that they've been having suicidal ideations or behavior, you definitely want to get professional help. And of course, we, here in the counseling office, we provide resources to families. We actually have a local mental health agency, and we have a provider who comes here to the school. So we do referrals for that agency, but we also just give community referrals, as well. So we have a list that we give to parents that we will send out. But anytime that something is seriously different and there's a concern of safety, you definitely want to seek professional help and maybe even look at multiple resources, just to make sure that whatever you're going to go with is going to be accessible and that it's going to be a good fit for you and for your family.

Emily St. Amant:

I think a lot of parents might feel a little bit more relieved to know that, should I ever need to access resources or if they need, they're looking into that for their child now, that their school counselor can be a resource. So you're not going into this alone.

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Right.

Emily St. Amant:

And just starting with Google, because that can just feel so overwhelming and that adds even more stress to the situation for people.

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Yeah, absolutely. And having that provider that we have here on campus at our school, having that partnership with them, it helps with a lot of the barriers that some families might face. If they don't have insurance, if there's a lack of transportation, if it's not a good fit for their schedule, it's helpful to have that resource available here at school. It makes it really convenient.

Emily St. Amant:

Right. Because like you said, parents are busy, if they're working, they have other kids, just driving around town, to getting their child to doctors and all these other things, kids are very busy these days. So getting that support, they're at the school. That is an amazing resource. So when it comes to maybe the impact of the lack of support for a child's or teen's mental health, mental and emotional mental health, what that might have. So why is it so important that this be everyone's priority to support the youth in their lives directly, and for all of us, to do a better job at the community level, state level, even national level, to support the wellbeing of students?

Dr. Jessica Holt:

It is so, so important that we do support those individuals because when we don't, that's when we see an increase in anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, self-harm, and even risky behavior, drug, alcohol use. So all of those things are definitely major risks or things that could happen if we're not being supportive. But the CDC just did a study and what they found is that 60% of teenage girls reported that they felt persistently sad or hopeless. And then 30% of those girls felt like they seriously considered dying by suicide.

Emily St. Amant:

Wow.

Dr. Jessica Holt:

So our young people are struggling right now, more than they ever have in the past. And so just the fact that so many of them have felt hopeless and they don't know what to do, we have to be more supportive. Not necessarily enabling them, but making sure that they know that if they need help, we're available and that we can point them in the right direction.

Emily St. Amant:

Right. Yeah. So like you said, it's the mental health crisis. I think we hear about children and teens are the symptom-bearers of families. And by that I mean, when there's something going on, the young person is the one that tends to show it, right?

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Right.

Emily St. Amant:

Because us adults, we can keep our game face on, but it just makes sense that we've been through so much and are still going through so much right now, that this would be showing up in our young people. And I'm so thankful that there's people like you, school counselors, people that are working with kids, wherever they are, and also supporting them and their families, that there are professionals that are there to support the child, the family, everyone that cares about them. I think you said, that it's so sad to hear that there's so much hopelessness, but I think that's a reason for hope, is that we do have a lot of adults that care and really want to be there and support these young people and to respond to this mental health crisis.

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Yeah, I agree with you. And I know here locally, just the fact that we have those mental health resources and we have the collaboration with those agencies, this is unprecedented to have those kind of relationships-

Emily St. Amant:

Yeah, wow.

Dr. Jessica Holt:

... available to us as school counselors for our students, is a really big deal. And I know that the ratio of school counselors to students in a lot of places, that's getting better. We're going to be getting an extra school counselor next year.

Emily St. Amant:

Oh, wow. Awesome.

Dr. Jessica Holt:

So it does seem like people are being responsive to that and so it's getting better. I think we're going in the right direction, which is really going to ultimately benefit the students and help them.

Emily St. Amant:

Yeah, they're our future and it is so cliche, but we are supporting the next generation of citizens. So this is going to make a big impact and I think that's a reason for all of us to care about supporting the children. And it's really awesome to hear how the community is kind of reaching out. I'm sure school counselors are used to reaching out for support, but it sounds like people are reaching in, which is awesome to hear.

Dr. Jessica Holt:

Right. Yeah, it really is.

Emily St. Amant:

Yeah. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Holt. If people want to get in touch with you or learn more about you, how can they do that?

Dr. Jessica Holt:

They can do that through my email, jbbaileylpc@gmail.com.

Emily St. Amant:

Thank you so much for joining us today. And if you are a counselor or mental health provider joining in, school counselors or you work with children and teens, be sure to check out our CE store. We offer lots of CE courses about working with children, youth, families, and for school counselors. And be sure to subscribe to the Voice of Counseling on Apple and Google Podcast and follow us on social media to get updates about all of our upcoming releases. And to join the ACA and get access to all the exclusive member benefits, check out counseling.org. Thanks for joining us. Have a great day everyone.

Announcer:

ACA provides these podcasts solely for informational and educational purposes. Opinions expressed in these podcasts do not necessarily reflect the view of ACA. ACA is not responsible for the consequences of any decisions or actions taken in reliance upon or as a result of the information and resources provided in this program. This program is copyright 2023 by the American Counseling Association. All rights reserved.

 

Join/Renew NOW!