Home Local Sports ‘You Matter’: Making a connection with all students

‘You Matter’: Making a connection with all students

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

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

As a follow up to The Richmond Observer’s feature on Richmond Senior High School student-athletes raising awareness and discussing mental health, the second part of this series focuses on the impact of local teachers, coaches and counselors.

Be There: ‘Create a true, lasting relationship’

Richmond head football coach Bryan Till has 21 years of coaching high school athletes under his belt. At Richmond the past five years, he’s directed the largest athletic program and coaches approximately 140 football players across the varsity and junior varsity teams.

While public discussion and advocacy for mental health awareness has surged the last several months, Till noted that it’s not a new concept for coaches.

“Historically, (mental health) hasn’t been a huge focus for spectators, but every coach I have ever had and coached with has focused on it at different times and in different ways,” Till said. “The mental aspects of the game tend to be the ‘focus,’ but as most coaches try to get their teams better at that, they teach them about time management, handling pressure situations and communicating with teammates and coaches.  

“Most coaches I know, and the guys on our staff do a tremendous job of this, counsel student-athletes constantly on life decisions such as managing jobs, future aspirations, family issues, dealing with death, relationships and managing money,” he added. “I think the main reason this is important is because the kids are important. They are why we do what we do and they are our future.”

When asked what he thought the biggest impact any coach at any level or with any sport can have on the wellness of student-athletes’ mental health, Till said fostering relationships is instrumental.

“The thing that I have seen to be the most successful is to create a true, lasting relationship with our players,” he explained. “We try to organize activities and team events to let them know that it’s not just about football, but nothing replaces a true, honest conversation in the office. 

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

Providing Resources: ‘We can’t just ignore the symptoms’

Nikki Wells has been a guidance counselor at Richmond for the past nine years, and prior to that she worked as a residential counselor and day treatment teacher in the mental health field for over 15 years.

Between assisting students with academic needs, course scheduling and other day-to-day goings ons at Richmond, Wells is a highly-qualified professional when it comes to discussing mental health with the student body.

Like Till, Wells feels one of the best ways to make high school students comfortable about addressing these needs is having an open conversation and having them understand the significance of mental health. 

“It’s very important for young adults to have open conversations about mental health and different avenues to discuss it because mental health still has a stigma associated with it, especially concerning student-athletes,” Wells said. “Students need to understand that their mental health is just as important as their physical health. I tell my students all the time, just like diabetes, heart disease and injuries need various treatments, our mental health is no different. 

“We can’t just ignore the symptoms. We must explore treatment options and ask for help concerning our mental health as well,” she continued. “I’m so glad to see more athletes and celebrities come forward lately about their mental health struggles. This brings awareness to our youth that everyone faces difficult situations and may struggle with their mental health at different times in life.”

The key to processing these challenging times in healthy ways for teenagers, Wells explained, is to ask a trusted adult for help, go see a therapist when needed, talk to a pediatrician and know that they don’t have to go through these times alone.

Part of Wells’ job as a guidance counselor is to provide Richmond’s students with resources to tackle these concerns. Other guidance counselors include Amanda Cipriani, Ricki Hailey and Christy Ransom.

“We have four dedicated, very caring guidance counselors who will listen to students’ concerns, fears, problems and refer 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 on the guidance hall and we teach our students different coping strategies when we meet with them during stressful times in their lives.” 

Other resources provided to local students include mental health agencies that are contracted through the district and provide therapy for students. If necessary, students may receive classroom accommodations and can also meet with a school psychologist.


Immerse Yourself: ‘Ask what you can do to help’

One of the most beloved peopled around the halls of Richmond is lifelong educator Suzanne Hudson, a 28-year veteran teacher. 

Having just closed her 23rd year at Richmond, Hudson teaches AP U.S. Government, Civics and Teacher Cadet, and serves as a Beta Club sponsor, an FTA advisor and has been a Senate advisor.

Hudson’s roles as a teacher far surpass the standard school day, as she immerses herself in her students’ interests and activities, all geared toward having a positive impact on their mental health.

“My ‘why’ is my students and doing everything I can to support them,” Hudson explained. “I always wanted to be a teacher. Of course, I want them to learn the curriculum, 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 being a positive influence, I talk with my students quite often about their mental health. I try to build a positive rapport with my students from day one and show them that I care about them and will support them in any way I can. 

Hudson says she has anxiety and is “very open about it” with her students. She explains how she feels physically when she is struggling. She also talks about stress eating, how she is trying to do better by exercising and that anxiety and depression affect everyone differently.  

“I think it is so important for students to have ‘a person’ at school. It can be anyone in the building, someone they feel they can trust. If I have a student who is upset, or see someone in the hall who is upset, the first thing I will ask is if there is anyone at school they feel comfortable talking to.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a rippling shockwave in education the last two years, seeing students miss out on normal functions and in-classroom instruction. Hudson says she’s dealt with more mental health needs this past school year than ever before.

Knowing the impact 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 okay,” Hudson said. “I have had so many students who are so overwhelmed and truly struggling. One of the first things I try to do is try to help them breathe and focus. I have reached out to our guidance counselors and social workers on many occasions for help and they have jumped right in.  

“I have also talked to parents, too,” she continued. “It is difficult sometimes for parents to understand that students are not just being teenagers, that their anxiety or depression is real and it needs to be taken seriously. I had a very special group of kids first semester 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 an eighth-grade mind.’ That really hit hard because they had missed so much being out of school for so long. Students are under so much pressure today and I don’t think we really understand. But we can listen and sometimes that is the first step. Sometimes they just need to talk it out. They need help handling the pressure.”

Hudson said one of the reasons she loves being involved with clubs and extracurricular activities is that’s where she really gets to know the students and see their skills in action. From shy sophomores to thriving seniors, she helps them develop leadership skills or discover a passion for serving. 

Whether it’s band, sports, art, Beta Club, media journalism, chorus or CTE courses, Hudson believes it is helpful for students to find something they love at school and pour themselves into it.

“Parents, teachers, administrators, coaches or anyone involved in a child’s life need to understand that while there are things you can do to help manage stress, anxiety is different for everyone,” Hudson closed. 

“Telling someone to just relax or everyone feels that way, while being well-intentioned, can make them feel frustrated. If it was 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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Kyle Pillar is a 16-time North Carolina Press Association award-winning sports editor with The Richmond Observer. Follow the sports department on Twitter @ROSports_ for the best in-depth coverage of Richmond County sports.