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As Schools Struggle To Meet Kids' Emotional Needs, One Colorado School May Have A Fix

Peyton Meredith, left, is a senior and peer counselor at Westgate Community School, a K-12 public charter in Thornton, Colorado, and Amanda Novak, right, is the assistant principal at Westgate. A lack of counselors at the school inspired them to collaborate on a peer counseling program to address the mental health needs of students. (Courtesy Holly Peterson)
Peyton Meredith, left, is a senior and peer counselor at Westgate Community School, a K-12 public charter in Thornton, Colorado, and Amanda Novak, right, is the assistant principal at Westgate. A lack of counselors at the school inspired them to collaborate on a peer counseling program to address the mental health needs of students. (Courtesy Holly Peterson)

School counselors are having a tough time keeping up with a wave of new struggles among teenagers in the U.S.

More and more kids need to speak with a mental health counselor, but it’s unlikely to happen at school where resources are getting stretched thinner and thinner. A lack of counselors at a school in Colorado inspired the administration to collaborate with students on a peer counseling program to address students’ mental health needs.

“We have one counselor for our entire student body,” says Amanda Novak( @kudrona), theassistant principal at Westgate Community School, a K-12, public charter school in Thornton, Colorado. “And we noticed right away just that our counselor was like running around all day long just trying to meet with kid after kid after kid. She was literally just running around the building all day.”

Over the past decade, the number of young people reporting symptoms of major depression has increased by more than 50 percent among 12 to 17 year olds, according to a study published this month in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

“We’re seeing kids in crisis, and counselors have a lot of jobs, too,” Novak tells Here & Now’sPeter O’Dowd. “So kids with suicidal ideation and kids with depression and kids with anxiety and kids with impulsivity issues, and I think that if we had more counselors, we could support more.”

The idea of enlisting students to serve as peer counselors was born out of a conversation with high school students who say this is a problem, too, Novak says. Peyton Meredith, a 17-year-old senior and peer counselor at Westgate, says the students just needed someone to talk to.

“How we help them is just letting them talk because they have the solutions themselves,” Meredith says. “They just don’t know until they say it out loud, until they have someone to bounce ideas off. … It’s just like a bounce-off session, and they ultimately have the solutions. It’s just they need to organize their thoughts to get to that solution.”

Interview Highlights

On why mental health problems among kids are on the rise

Amanda Novak: “First of all, I think there’s a lot of pressure on students right now to succeed. And it’s a really fast-paced society, so we have like less time for reflection, for processing, for relationship. And then there’s also technology right now. I think that technology has an impact on those things, and I think that’s all creating this problem.”

On how the idea of peer counselors came about

Novak: “I think it’s started by just talking to a group of ambitious high schoolers that sort of saw this problem, too. They saw their friends feeling the stress of school and the stress of work and all the things that students have to do every day. And then they also noticed that in our building we have young students faced with the same problems, and it kind of just was born out of that conversation. And with a social work background I’ve studied counseling, I’ve read a lot of Renee Brown and just how to support people in this way. And I thought, ‘I could probably teach students how to do that,’ in a way that still values student privacy and confidentiality in the system we have. Without sort of impeding that, we could still support more people that way.”

On counseling younger students

Peyton Meredith: “So little kids nowadays have, the news is more open, and there’s so much happening in the world and it’s at their fingertips. First and second graders are seeing these like mass shootings and stuff and want to know why this is happening, and they come scared like, ‘Am I going to be OK? Am I going to be OK?’ And we’re like, it’s hard to explain to them that yes, they will be OK.

“I just tell them like, ‘It’s always happened. We just have so much technology at our fingertips now that it’s recorded more. It’s more known because we’re not, we’re more connected than we’ve ever been as a society in general.’ ”

On the challenges high school students are facing

Meredith: “The high schoolers have come to me because they’re so stressed. There’s so much pressure put on them, especially as they enter junior and senior year of, now you have to make a life choice of where are you going to go next? And [for] a lot of them [it] is, ‘I don’t know until I’m actually in the workforce, but my parents are forcing me to figure out something that I’m not ready to figure out because I’m not ready to grow up yet.’ ”

On how peer counselors handle if a student has thoughts of suicide

Meredith: “That one is not for me to handle. I have to go straight to my counselor or Miss Novak because that is out of my range as I have not been taught how to deal with that. That’s an adult problem that I cannot face.”

Novak: “Yeah and it’s happened before. And our mentors have roleplayed and practiced how to like gently pause that session and go get either myself or the counselor. But then we always have an opportunity at the end of our sessions to work as a team of peer mentors to go through self care, to get support, to make sure that we’re filling our own cups and taking care of ourselves.”

On if the use of peer counselors is a long-term solution

Novak: “I think that every student has social, emotional needs in school that are simply not being met because we’re more focused on academic standards right now as a culture. You know, that bleeds into mental health, I think, because you’re looking at students who have maybe like a mid-level need. When they don’t get support, when they don’t get mental health support, and they don’t have the support of a counselor quickly or even ever throughout the school year, that mid-level concern can become a crisis. And that’s where the problem lies. So if we have a group of high schoolers — compassionate, empathetic, trained high schoolers — who are just that space to like talk to or someone can have a supportive presence, what we’re doing is we’re taking away that cycle where it becomes a crisis because nobody has reached out to that person.”

Meredith: “I know I’m making a difference because I’ve seen a difference I’ve made in the kids I mentored. Their whole mentality changes toward school, towards life, towards themselves, which is what a kid needs at times.”

Ashley Bailey produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.