Editor’s Note: Today’s post is a chapter from a new resource from ACSI Research called “Leading Insights: Mental Health & Well-Being.” To download the first chapter and order your copy of the full resource, please click here.
I will never forget the date: January 14, 2005. This was the day that I was rushed to the hospital and found out that I had just barely survived a pulmonary embolism. It was a significant day in my faith journey, as I knew that God was trying to get my attention. He had given me a second chance at life, and I did not want to take that for granted. I was not quite sure what was coming, but I knew that change was around the corner. Shortly after that day, I decided to go back to school and pursue my master’s degree in counselor education so that I could become a school counselor.
Prior to this decision, I had worked with adolescents in a variety of roles. I was on staff with Young Life and was a pastor’s wife for many years. In fact, I am still a pastor’s wife today. I loved working with adolescents, and I felt compelled to earn my master’s degree and start a new career path. My passion had always been to work with teens. I knew how pivotal my teenage years were for me and how much I relied on trusted adults to walk alongside me. I wanted to be a trusted adult in the lives of my students.
As I neared my graduation from The Ohio State University, I was excited to learn that I had an interview at Grove City Christian School (GCCS), located outside of Columbus, Ohio. Was it a coincidence that I had been praying for that very school the night before I was offered the interview, after hearing of a tragic situation involving some of their students? I don’t think so. Was it coincidence that I had been a Young Life leader in the public school across the street years prior and knew the area, the community, and the culture? I don’t think so. I had the interview and never looked back.
When I was first hired, GCCS did not have a school counseling program, so I began as an academic counselor to help students in their academic pursuits. It did not take long for any of us to realize that to help students succeed in the classroom, it was important to peel back the layers and look at what was happening in their lives outside of the classroom. According to the American School Counseling Association (ASCA), there are three primary areas to focus on in a school counseling program: academics, career development, and social emotional development (ASCA 2022). As time went on, we were able to put in motion the early stages of a comprehensive school counseling program. In the years since then, the program has expanded, and we have learned a lot about what it can look like in the Christian school setting, where students’ needs are met and they are growing into all that God has for them. In this chapter, I hope to share a few reflections on this journey and the lessons I have learned along the way.
It Takes a School
Perhaps the thing I have learned to value the most in my role as a school counselor is the importance of collaboration and relationship building. Having a supportive administration and a cooperative staff is imperative to a healthy school counseling program. It is when we work together that we can best meet the needs of students in the classroom, on the athletic field, in the halls, and as they navigate their way through life. In Scripture, 1 Corinthians 12:18-20 illustrates the importance of the many different parts that need to work together to maximize the efforts of the body: “But in fact, God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.” In the same way, each part of the Christian school needs to work together to maximize the educational experience for students.
This body of Christ at GCCS has been so significant through the years as we have navigated many tragedies. Each person plays a special role, unique to them and the relationships they have cultivated within the school community. There is no case study, book, or graduate course that quite prepares you for having to navigate a tragedy within a school.
During my thirteen years at GCCS, we have faced some difficult days. I am reminded of the student that was diagnosed with a brain tumor, only to lose that battle weeks after graduation. I think of the phone call I received late one night, letting me know that another student had been killed in a car accident. There was another phone call that I received while driving home from school: a student had suddenly lost a parent in a tragic event, and the student was unaware and still in the building. I remember turning the car around and speeding back to school just to be with the student when the authorities arrived. Another incident that comes to mind is when our school was directly struck by a tornado just a few hours after school let out. Athletes, coaches, and a handful of others were on campus when it hit. We were all grateful that there was no loss of life given the considerable damage that the building sustained. While we had to suspend operations for a couple of weeks, we all knew that it could have been much worse. Throughout my time at GCCS, I have also had to say goodbye to dear colleagues and navigate my own grief while helping students and other staff members with theirs.
These tragic events are not unique to our school or community. Across the world, people are faced with challenging circumstances and difficult days. This is where we have the amazing opportunity to stand out as a school. As a Christian school, we offer a message of hope, love, goodness, restoration, and peace. During each of these tragedies, our school community grew stronger. Through prayer vigils, families joining together to serve, and people giving of their time, talents, and treasures, we witnessed God’s people coming together again and again.
As a school counselor, my roles and responsibilities during those events were significant. There were many sleepless nights thinking about all that needed to get done. But together, we were able to offer counseling services and resources for students, staff, and families. Together, we created opportunities for staff and students to gather and simply be with one another. Together, we helped students to find hope and peace while walking through intense grief. In those times, it was not about the specific role of each person — it was about how we worked together. Sure, we had done professional development on how to handle some of those things, but no amount of training can prepare a school community for tragedy and loss. The mental health and well-being of everyone was affected during those times. It was in those tragic moments that I knew my role was important. Not that there was anything special about me specifically, but it was crucial that we had a trained professional in the building who could help staff, students, and families to cope with the difficult times. Equally important was providing resources for those in need. Partnering with local doctors, hospitals, counseling agencies, church staff, and other school counselors became a necessary step time and time again.
Mental Health Trends
There is a quote by George Barna that sits on the wall behind my desk: “If you want to have a lasting influence upon the world, you must invest in people’s lives; and if you want to maximize that investment, then you must invest in those people while they are young.” Now more than ever, I see the importance of that quote. Our young people are being influenced in so many ways. There are many things vying for their attention and pulling on their heartstrings. There are so many mixed messages and snippets of “fake news” for them to decipher. There is political unrest, racial tension, and a spirit of division in our world. Social media robs our students of their time and often influences their thinking, attitudes, and behavior. What does that have to do with my role as a school counselor? Everything.
In the latter half of my career, I started to notice several shifts in my students. Apathy grew stronger, behaviors of some students worsened, depression and anxiety increased tremendously, and suicidal ideation became a pervasive thought in the lives of several students. Why? I began to ask more questions to try to figure out if what I was seeing was commonplace in other schools. Unfortunately, the answer was yes: These trends are very common in teen culture. I collaborated with our local children’s hospital and its top-notch behavioral health center. Together, we spoke to counselors across the state about suicide awareness and prevention. We also worked to bring programming to schools to walk alongside students in their darkest days and provide help, resources, and partnerships with families.
As a school, we now do an annual Suicide Prevention and Awareness program called the Signs of Suicide. Each year, students learn what do to if another student shares suicidal thoughts with them. We teach students that if they see something, either in person or online, they need to say something to a trusted adult. The program also reinforces the acronym ACT (Acknowledge, Care, Tell) and encourages students to talk to a trusted adult if they are hurting and are not in a good place mentally and emotionally. This program has opened the doors to important conversations with students and their families. We have been able to connect many families with outside counseling agencies that offer them individual and family support. While this is a difficult week of every school year, it is also a very powerful time. Some students realize while filling out the program questionnaire that they are anxious or sad, and that it may be time to get some help. For many students, it is a time to finally trust someone with what they have been going through.
We also observed that many of these issues were taking root with our younger students. Having a supportive administration and a head of school who understands the importance of school counselors in the building, we hired a counselor to serve our K-8 students and families. Due to budget constraints, our local public district does not have elementary counselors. However, I have talked to my counterparts in the local public school, and they are keenly aware that we have an elementary counselor and wish they could, too. The needs of our youngest students are many, and in developing our program, we realized the importance of having that support person in the building. This was one of the greatest decisions we could have made, because we are encouraging our younger students as these trends start to emerge, and hopefully helping them to develop healthy ways of thinking, feeling, and acting before they arrive at adolescence with all its challenges.
The Impact of Technology
In my informal research and observations of local and national statistics, I began to see another trend. The more students were on their phones, the more distant students seemed to be and the less likely they were to pay attention in class. American teens are in front of a screen more than seven hours a day, not including their schoolwork (Rogers 2019). To get a better idea of how phones were impacting our students’ ability to focus, we decided to conduct a school-wide experiment.
In February and March of 2020, just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to look at what the effects were, if any, among our students from their cell phone use. I worked with our statistics class and had them help me with data collection. What we found was astonishing. Normally, our middle school students are not permitted to have their phones during the day and our high school students have limited phone use. Without notifying students ahead of time, we decided to allow students to have their phones with them for one day and their notification settings had to be on. On that particular day, everyone had a piece of paper that allowed them to track their notifications throughout the day. With a population of about 315 students, there were over 16,600 notifications in just one day. That averages to about 53 notifications in one school day per student. We were able to take that data and quickly turn it into a life lesson of how much our phones are a distraction.
To gather stronger evidence, the next day (without letting the students know) we did not allow students to use their phones at all during the day. They even had to go “old school” and go to the office if they needed to call home. We did not collect quantitative data, but instead we had an exit questionnaire at the end of the day to see how students reacted to the lack of access to their phone for the day. We were amazed at what we heard and observed from students. While some students were honest in their opinion of the experiment and they disliked being away from their phones, most students commented on how much they appreciated it. Some realized they are dealing with social awkwardness and have used their phone to avoid social interactions. Others were reunited with friends they hadn’t spoken to in a while through lunchtime conversations. And many just said it was refreshing to not have the pressure of their phone and all the notifications that distracted them.
This silly little experiment reminded me of how much these young minds are being influenced by technology. It was a good reminder of how powerful the Internet, social media, and constant connection can be. While there is great value in modern technology, there are also things that we must be intentional about teaching our teens. Do they know what to do when being solicited for inappropriate pictures by a friend, let alone a stranger? Do they know what things are appropriate to post and what reveals too much personal information? Are students engaging in online behavior (gaming, chatting, etc.) with complete strangers? Do they know how to block their location? Do parents know the latest apps that teens are using to mask their identity, whereabouts, etc.? Do parents understand the teen lingo that is being used on the latest apps?
By having a comprehensive school counseling program in the building, we can provide information for our stakeholders and address difficult conversations around technology and culture. As a school, we began to put articles in our parent newsletter to offer family resources around the issues of mental health, screen time, the effects of social media, and ways to set limits. We conducted professional development for our staff on the lingo and trends of apps and texting. We even hosted a parent night in conjunction with local authorities to talk to parents about digital footprints and the importance of understanding what is going on in the cyberworld. While these topics are fluid and technology is ever changing, we are doing what we can to stay in touch with cultural trends, and having a comprehensive school counseling program helps tremendously in this effort.
Then Came Along COVID-19
Do you remember the date I said that we were doing our upper school phone experiment? It was the end of February and the beginning of March of 2020. After the experiment, the goal was to encourage families to engage in conversation with their student about cell usage and screen time and to make a concerted effort as a school community to reduce our time on screens. But then the COVID-19 pandemic came along. To this day, my students remind me of the irony: We had just talked about the effects of screen time, and within a couple of weeks we were gathered in the gym to let students know that we would have to go to remote learning for a couple of weeks. As the story goes for most Christian schools, we went to remote learning for the rest of the school year.
As a mental health worker, it did not take long to realize that we were trying to solve a problem with a problem. Educators across the country had to get creative with how to keep students engaged in their schoolwork. Technology companies boomed and words like Zoom, bandwidth, Google Hangouts, remote learning, and synchronous versus asynchronous learning became household terms. Prior to COVID-19 and the increase in screen time, researchers found that children ages four to 17 years old who used their phones seven or more hours per day were more than twice as likely to have been diagnosed with depression and/or anxiety, treated by a mental health professional, or have taken medication for a psychological or behavioral issue (Twenge and Campbell 2018). So, what would the effects be of adding even more time in front of a screen to students? Unfortunately, I don’t think we can begin to see the full effect of this, as we are still amid the pandemic two years later. In fact, just this week, we had to the make the decision to go to remote learning as the cases have spiked in our community yet again. While we are not anticipating this will be a long-term decision, I believe that the mental health effects will have a long-term impact on our precious young people.
As much as these past few years have been difficult, they have also given us the opportunity to see the best in people. Just last week, when we made the announcement that we had to go remote, my office quickly filled up with students having concerns for what that would look like. For some it was simply that home was not their safe place—school was. For others, it was a fear of losing motivation while on remote learning and not being able to do that with graduation on the horizon. For others it was deeper, a sense of “what if we are out the rest of the year again?” My heart sank.
Then, one student came into my office with tears in his eyes and asked if he could pray for the school. He felt compelled to pray for God’s hand in all of this and for students to remember the One who gives us life and love. And so, at the end of the day, that dear student came over the announcements to pray for our staff and student body. It was my turn to tear up as I heard the passion in his voice for Jesus. These are the moments when we are reminded of the importance of what we do. As my principal always says, “We get to do this.” This could not be truer. We have an opportunity to speak life over these students and walk with them through the highs and lows. Even though it can be challenging, I truly think I have the best job in the world. I love being a school counselor.
To continue reading, order your copy of Leading Insights: Mental Health and Well-Being, here.
About the Author
Nancy Gillespie is a licensed school counselor and has served at Grove City Christian School (GCCS) outside of Columbus, Ohio, for the past thirteen years. At GCCS, she has created a comprehensive school counseling program and continues to manage students’ needs in the areas of academic success, personal social development, and college and career options. Concurrently, she is a first-year doctoral student in pursuit of her Ph.D. in counselor education and supervision from The Ohio State University. Working at a Christian school gives her the opportunity to share her love of education, counseling, and people with the love of Christ at the center.