The three Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Nashville each have at least one personal counselor to offer guidance to students as they navigate the choppy waters of adolescence. But they are not working alone; at Father Ryan High School, St. Cecilia Academy, and Pope John Paul II High School, students themselves are playing an active role in watching out for their peers’ well-being.
Teens these days – who are balancing tough coursework, relationships, extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, and a constant tether to technology and social media – are more anxious than previous generations. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 6 million American teens suffer from an anxiety disorder. If mental health conditions like anxiety and depression go unchecked, that can lead to self-harm, even suicide. Students are playing their part to prevent that from happening at their schools.
After several suicides last year in the private school community, a group of St. Cecilia girls came forward with the idea to establish a mental health club. “They came to me and said we want to do more among the students ourselves,” said Krissie Betbeze, the school’s personal counselor.
The club is organizing events that provide information to their classmates about the warning signs of problems that can lead to suicide and also fun events that can help the girls get their minds off the pressures of life and relax, said Betbeze, a licensed clinical social worker.
Since she started as a counselor at St. Cecilia, Betbeze has seen more and more students asking for help for themselves or for a friend.
“We’ve really tried to build open discussion around mental health issues and make it a topic that you can talk about,” Betbreze said. “Hopefully, we’re increasing that awareness among the girls.
Earlier this fall, Pope John Paul II High School counselor Kelsey Wilson helped a group of students prepare a presentation on suicide awareness and prevention for an all-school assembly. The students, some of whom had lost of a friend or relative to suicide, talked about the warning signs and how they can help, Wilson said.
The webpage for the Counseling Office at JPII has a link for Personal Counseling, which includes a referral form for teachers or parents who think a student might be struggling. “If a student, teacher or parent feels like a student might be exhibiting some of the warning signs or seems to be struggling, they can refer them to the counseling office to follow up,” Wilson said.
“I think we’re seeing more students referring other students, or students saying ‘I want to talk,’” Wilson said. That’s a good sign, she added. “Students want to be a good friend and be there for a friend struggling. But they’re recognizing when they need to get an adult involved.”
At Father Ryan High School, assisting the professional counseling staff and interns are 38 peer mentors, juniors and seniors who have been trained to look after the fellow students “and make sure they feel like they belong and they have a group of people who have their back,” said Rhonda Jones, the director of the personal counseling office at the school.
Even more than teachers, students are often the first to notice when another student might be having a problem, Jones said. “We’ve been amazed how many times a mentor has walked a student up here to say, ‘He’s having a rough day.’”
The school provides information to students, faculty and staff about how to recognize the signs that a teen might be considering suicide and what to do to help them.