SUPPORT SQUAD School Counselors help students through the peaks and valleys of high school life

High school is a journey. Even though a student spends four years in the same physical location, where he begins and where he ends are undoubtedly two very different places.

It’s a journey of formation and transformation as 14-year-old boys become 18-year-old men, as kids from Northeast Ohio prepare to take on the world. For proof, simply compare their freshman and senior photos. It’s definitely the same person, but clearly changed—on the surface and on the soul.

This four-year adventure is a training ground. It’s preparation for the next expedition: college, vocation, life… As students make their way, they encounter peaks with marvelous views of their dreams and potential, but also valleys of darkness, confusion and hurt. In each phase, they collect and carry these lessons and experiences.

“All these kids—1,500 kids—are walking around, and their backpacks are not only full of books and notebooks and computers, but emotions and feelings and struggles and fears and hopes and dreams,” says Mike Strauss ’87, Chair of the Counseling Department.

Counseling Department Chair Mike Strauss '87

Students at Saint Ignatius, talented and hard-working though they are, are still high school boys. They endure the changes wrought by puberty, first loves and heartbreaks, thrills of achievement, difficult relationships with friends and family, excitement for new passions, loss, confusion, temptation, moments of clarity and questions of faith.

Strauss’s backpack analogy reflects the truth of the student experience: that students carry much more with them than meets the eye. That may never have been truer than throughout the past 12 months. There is no need to recount all the ways that students’ journeys have been disrupted due to the coronavirus pandemic but simply a need to recognize that they just have.

Tucked into the foundation of the Main Building at Saint Ignatius, the Counseling Department recognizes and responds to these realities of student life. Their dedicated faculty are often the through-line connecting student to home life to classroom performance to discipline to whatever else comes their way. They can help a student go through the proverbial backpack, evaluate its contents, re-pack it, adding tools and skills to aid the young man as he moves forward.

“Just being able to help them unpack that a little bit, I think is what makes this job so special,” Strauss says.

Awareness and understanding of mental health issues have been on the rise in recent years. In 2018, Cleveland Cavaliers star Kevin Love was one of the early high-profile people who spoke openly about what been a sort of taboo topic, sharing his own personal struggles with anxiety and depression—and a world that seemed to shame men for admitting to facing such challenges.

“I know it from experience,” Love wrote in The Players’ Tribune. “Growing up, you figure out really quickly how a boy is supposed to act. You learn what it takes to ‘be a man.’ It’s like a playbook: Be strong. Don’t talk about your feelings. Get through it on your own. So for 29 years of my life, I followed that playbook.”

Love’s ultimate message? “Everyone is going through something that we can’t see.”

That’s where Strauss and the rest of the Counseling team come in. They walk with students—and their families—to unpack their experiences, to learn from them, to get help as needed, and to be better prepared to go forward.

They are trustworthy companions when a student may feel like he is on his journey all alone.

The counseling hallway is a quiet and welcoming place for students.

The counseling offices are located in the basement of the Main Building, behind the Athletic Department. This provides some degree of confidentiality, as it’s not a highly trafficked corridor. But the spaces students enter are not what you’d expect from basement offices—they are warm and inviting rooms with comfortable chairs and cheerful artwork. They reflect the personalities and interests of their occupants—the kind and compassionate men and women for whom no two days are the same.

“Every day is so different,” says School Psychologist Melissa Lessick. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. Sometimes you come in and you have a crisis on your hands—a kid who is suicidal, and you have to call the parents and have that really tough conversation…and then helping them walk through the steps of what to do next.”

“And some days I might meet with 20 kids just to check in and say, ‘Hey, how are you? Is there anything that you need?’”

School Psychologist Melissa Lessick

The current counseling staff members have all been at Saint Ignatius for at least six years—some for many more than that. Three are parents of current students or young alumni and so have observed the bigger picture of the student journey firsthand. They’re credentialed and professional people with a deep love for and commitment to the students.

Before the start of freshman year, every student is assigned a school counselor, whom they can go to for questions with scheduling, learning accommodations and assistance with skills like time management, test-taking, study habits and managing stress.

Counselors check in with all students throughout the year, especially when it comes to scheduling classes, but also if a student is identified by a teacher as struggling in class, or if he is referred by a concerned friend. A series of locked boxes around school and a mobile app allow students to leave an anonymous tip if they are concerned about a peer; the counseling team reviews those every week and follows up as needed.

A November 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that mental health emergency department visits for children ages 12-17 had increased 31 percent. This year, visits to the counseling offices have risen, reflecting that trend.

“Lately we’ve had a lot of students come down talking about anxiety and depression,” says Lessick. “COVID kind of ramped that up, so we’ve been very busy meeting with students about that.”

“Mental health has always been there, even before COVID,” she adds. “There’s a lot of kids that deal with anxiety. I’ve seen that be something that’s increased since I’ve been here for 14 years. There’s a lot of pressure from the students that they put on themselves; they just get it from different directions, and I don’t know if it’s because they’re teenage boys or just teenagers in general, but it’s hard for them to talk about it. And they bottle it up a lot and, at some point, whether it’s a parent that calls us or a teacher that says, ‘Look, something’s wrong, he’s not acting like himself,’ or sometimes we’ve had students come down and say, ‘I’m worried about my friend.’ It’s really nice because the boys will look out for each other and they’ll come to us and let us know they’re worried about their friend.”

Strauss likens the role of his team in these situations to that of a safety net, making sure that a student can rebound from setbacks. They work with teachers and the staff of The Robert M. Walton ’41 Center for Learning to create accommodation plans, or meet with parents to better understand issues at home. When the situation directs it, they provide referrals to clinical psychologists or other outside counselors.

In recent years, Counseling has made strides to be more present to students beyond the scheduled meetings. An initiative called Counselors on the Quad involves a cookout and yard games outside when the weather is nice; its purpose is no more than to provide students some stress relief and give the counseling staff time to socialize with them.

Additionally, a reimagined Freshman Seminar class that debuted this year has enabled counselors to see students in the classroom setting. The new iteration of the course was redeveloped this year by Walton Center Director Emily Samek, Spanish teacher Sara Sebring and Math teacher Erin Hanna.

Previously a freshman seminar course ran through Counseling and the Walton Center while, concurrently, a senior Big Brother program operated under the direction of the National Honors Society. Finding significant overlap between the two orientation initiatives, they merged efforts for the first time during the fall semester.

“We had a faculty member and a Big Brother in each group,” Hanna says. “The faculty could give more of the instructional basis for whatever the topic was for the week, but also the Big Brother provided the student perspective on things for freshmen to help them out.”

The purpose is to make sure that as new students at a new school, freshmen have a good starter set of tools and maps to lead them on their journey.

“Everything from organizational topics like how to use a planner, how to manage your time, but then also how to get involved, making sure students know how to check their email, check PowerSchool, Google Classroom—all the things you need to do to survive the day-to-day at Ignatius,” Hanna says. “But then also making sure that there were social aspects. Our Big Brothers would play games with them a lot; they would do trivia and different activities to get to know each other, hoping that if you’re not interacting with people in your classes because it’s scary and everybody’s in masks that here’s a place that you can come and you have a small group of kids that you can get to know.”

The various sections of the seminar course were led by a wide variety of staff—not exclusively counselors or teachers—but Lessick says it was great, from a counselor perspective, to have that time in the classroom.

“That’s been really cool to get into the classroom and do a little teaching,” she says. “It’s great. The kids love it. I feel like I’ve gotten to know not just my students but other students I wouldn’t have been able to meet. As a counselor it helps us, too, to find out how to help the students better because you see them in that classroom environment.”

Other recent or upcoming student counseling initiatives include S.C.O.P.E., an extracurricular that stands for “Students for Compassion, Outreach, Perseverance, Education” and works to raise awareness about issues of mental health. There’s work to regularly bring a therapy dog to campus and, after the pandemic, invite students to participate in Meditation Mondays.

Furthermore, this year Strauss has begun providing a monthly newsletter to faculty, called “Reflections from the Basement,” that informs them about the work counselors are doing, along with useful information about student life—including data about adolescent stress or trends in drug and alcohol use.

“It’s important because people don’t know what school counselors do,” he says. “So not only are we trying to reach out to the students and be there to support them, but we want to shine the light on the department and let people know this is what we do. This is how we support the students.”

“When I came to Ignatius, I think there is this perception that you’re going to be working with a very special kind of kid—you know, very smart, intelligent, off the charts—and believe me they are,” Strauss says. “But we have to remember that they’re just boys who wear ties, and so they’re still dealing with the same problems, issues, and development that any other 14- to 18-year-old boy is going through. So sometimes it’s good to remind faculty about that as well.”

One of his goals as chair is to develop a soft curriculum that highlights the skills and tools students will carry with them upon graduation—life skills like time management and organization but also social-emotional skills that sometimes are overlooked.

The counseling team may help a student carry his proverbial backpack on his journey, but it’s always with the understanding that eventually he will need to carry it himself again.

There are countless success stories that few people will ever know about, the crises and conflicts that students face and overcome that then they carry with them.

There are students who encounter challenges maintaining passing grades but get the support that helps them study better. There are students who have a hard time making friends and are nurtured to get involved in a student activity.

There are students who lose a parent or loved one and are accompanied in their grief by peers who have endured the same, led by counselors. There are students who find themselves facing addictions and by telling a counselor can finally get the help to break free from those chains. There are students who confront deep emotional issues and in a moment of desperation find a counselor who will love them, not judge them and keep them safe.

Most importantly, no matter what hill a student finds himself climbing, he has a friend and ally in the Counseling team—and often in his peers. In fact, counseling runs various groups that allow students to gather and work through some of these challenges together.

“It’s not therapy, but it’s like, ‘Hey, I know what you’re going through, and I see you,’” Lessick says. “If you need something, I am here to talk. You just see each other in the hallway and give each other a nod.”

“It’s really powerful to hear them in those settings talk,” she adds. “They just share their stories and what helped them get through in those moments. That’s how they learn, more from each other than the adults in the room. I don’t really say much. We just pose some questions and throw it out there and they kind of take over. It could be a kid who lost his mom five years ago and then a student who lost his mom three months ago, and he could say, ‘I know where you are’ and mean it.”

The Counseling Department, Strauss says, does not do anything particularly unusual or innovative in their work. However, it’s a spirit of cura personalis—care for the whole person—that infuses everything they do.

“There’s no huge secret in the sauce,” he says. “It’s really just providing a safe, confidential space where a student can let out his feelings and emotions.”

“As we wrap up, I always tell them how proud I am of their bravery for coming down here and opening up,” he adds. “For anybody, what’s very hard for us to do is to talk about our own personal feelings. For a 16- or 17-year-old to trust me, to trust any one of the counselors, to me that’s a grace, that’s a gift, that they have the courage to trust us enough that they can really give us a delicate piece of who they are, and trust that we’re going to care for that piece.”

There is no doubt that the role of counseling is critical to students’ journeys through Saint Ignatius—and beyond. Inevitably, when a graduate wades through the darkness of valleys that are part of adulthood, he will have experiences to draw from that will shine a light forward.

And when he reaches the peaks on the other side, it will be because he had packed the right tools and had friends who had shown him how to climb.

Created By
Connor Walters


Connor Walters '09, TRG Reality