You Matter: Connecting with all students

Teacher Suzanne Hudson (right) is one of many mental health advocates who works with and helps students at Richmond Senior High School. (Kyle Pillar, Sports Editor)

ROCKINGHAM – Educators often wear several different hats inside and outside the classroom as educators, coaches, mentors, role models and even mental health advocates.

Continuing The Richmond Observer’s article on raising awareness and discussing mental health among Richmond Senior High School students and athletes, part two of this series focuses on the impact of local teachers, coaches and counselors.

Be There: “Create a Real, Lasting Relationship”

Richmond head coach Bryan Till has coached high school athletes for 21 years. For the past five years he has run Richmond’s largest athletic program and coached approximately 140 football players on the varsity and junior varsity teams.

While public discussion and advocacy of mental health awareness has surged in recent months, Till noted that this is not a new concept for coaches.

“In the past (mental health) hasn’t been a huge focus for viewers, but every coach I’ve ever had and trained with has focused on it at different times and in different ways,” Till said. “The mental aspects of the game are usually the focus, but as most coaches try to improve their teams at it, they teach them time management, how to deal with pressure and how to communicate with teammates and coaches.

“Most of the coaches I know and the guys on our team are doing an amazing job here, constantly advising student-athletes on life decisions like managing jobs, future aspirations, family issues, dealing with death, relationships and managing money” , he added . “I think the main reason that’s important is because the kids are important. They are the reason we do what we do and they are our future.”

When asked what he thinks is the greatest impact a coach at any level or with any sport can have on the mental health well-being of students and athletes, Till said nurturing relationships is vital.

“What I’ve seen most successful is building a real, lasting relationship with our players,” he explained. “We try to organize activities and team events to let them know it’s not just about football, but nothing replaces a real, honest conversation in the office.

“Sometimes serious and sometimes not, but real, honest conversations tend to create the kind of relationships that allow you to help when needed. If you are needed, be there.”

Providing resources: “We can’t just ignore the symptoms”

Nikki Wells has been a careers counselor in Richmond for the past nine years and before that she worked as a housing counselor and day care mental health teacher for over 15 years.

In addition to assisting students with academic needs, course planning and other day to day things in Richmond, Wells is a highly skilled professional when it comes to speaking to the student body about mental health.

Like Till, Wells believes that one of the best ways to help high school students address these needs is to have an open conversation and let them understand the importance of mental health.

“It’s very important for young adults to have open conversations about mental health and different ways to discuss it because there’s still a stigma associated with mental health, especially in relation to student athletes,” Wells said. “Students need to understand that their mental health is just as important as their physical health. I constantly tell my students that just as diabetes, heart disease, and injuries require different treatments, our mental health is no different.

“We cannot just ignore the symptoms. We need to explore treatment options and also ask for help related to our mental health,” she continued. “I’m so glad that more athletes and celebrities have been speaking out about their mental health issues lately. This brings awareness to our youth that everyone faces difficult situations and struggles with their mental health at different times in life.”

The key to navigating these challenging times in a healthy way for teens, Wells explained, is asking for help from a trusted adult, seeing a therapist if needed, talking to a pediatrician, and knowing they don’t have to go through these times alone.

Part of Wells’ job as a college advisor is to provide resources for Richmond students to address these concerns. Other advisors include Amanda Cipriani, Ricki Hailey and Christy Ransom.

“We have four dedicated, very caring guidance counselors who listen to students’ concerns, fears and issues and direct them to the appropriate community resources,” Wells noted.

“We share various mental health resources on our school website and Canvas, we have resources posted in our offices and in the Counseling Hall, and we teach our students various coping skills when we meet with them at stressful times in their lives.”

Other resources made available to local students include mental health agencies contracted by the district that provide therapy to students. If necessary, students can receive classroom accommodation and also meet with a school psychologist.

Dive in: “Ask what you can do to help”

One of the most popular figures in the halls of Richmond is lifelong educator Suzanne Hudson, a 28-year-old veteran teacher.

Having just completed her 23rd year at Richmond, Hudson AP teaches US Government, Civics and Teacher Cadet and serves as Beta Club Sponsor, FTA Advisor and Senate Advisor.

Hudson’s roles as a teacher extend well beyond the normal school day as she immerses herself in her students’ interests and activities, all designed to have a positive impact on their mental health.

“My ‘why’ is my students and I do everything I can to support them,” Hudson said. “I always wanted to be a teacher. Of course I want them to learn the syllabus, but I want them to become more confident students, I want them to believe in themselves. I also want them to be productive citizens.

“As far as it has a positive impact, I talk to my students about their mental health quite often. I try to build a positive relationship with my students from day one and show them that I care and will support them in any way I can.

Hudson says she’s scared and is “very open” with her students. She explains how she feels physically when she has problems. She also talks about stress eating, trying to get better through exercise, and how anxiety and depression affect everyone differently.

“I think it’s so important that the students have ‘a person’ in the school. It can be anyone in the building, someone they can trust. When I have a student who is upset or see someone in the hall who is upset, the first thing I do is ask if there is anyone at school they are comfortable with.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a massive shockwave in education over the past two years, with students missing out on normal classroom functions and lessons. Hudson says she’s dealt with more mental health issues this past school year than ever before.

Knowing that the effects of the pandemic will be seen in classrooms “for years to come,” Hudson hopes that more counselors and social workers will be available to help local students achieve academic success.

“Our students are not doing well,” Hudson said. “I had so many students who were so overwhelmed and really struggling. One of the first things I try to do is try to help them breathe and focus. I have turned to our careers advisers and social workers for help on many occasions and they have stepped in immediately.

“I’ve also spoken to parents,” she continued. “It is sometimes difficult for parents to understand that students are not just teenagers, that their fears or depression are real and need to be taken seriously. I had a very special group of freshmen who were very honest and open with me about how they were feeling.

“One of the most important things a student said one day was, ‘We are tenth grade bodies with eighth grade minds.’ It hit them really hard because they missed being away from school so much. Students are under so much pressure today and I don’t think we really understand it. But we can listen, and sometimes that’s the first step. Sometimes they just have to say it out loud. They need help dealing with the pressure.”

Hudson said one of the reasons she loves getting involved in clubs and after-school activities is because it’s where she really gets to know the students and sees their skills in action. From shy sophomores to successful seniors, she helps them develop leadership skills or discover a passion for service.

Whether it’s a band, sports, arts, Beta Club, media journalism, choir, or CTE courses, Hudson believes it helps students find something they love in school and get involved in.

“A parent, teacher, administrator, coach or anyone involved in a child’s life needs to understand that while there are things you can do to manage stress, anxiety is different for everyone,” Hudson concluded.

“Telling someone to relax or everyone feels that way when it’s well intentioned can frustrate them. If it were that easy, it wouldn’t be a problem. Listen to your child, friend, and students and ask what you can do to help.”

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