MSM prioritize counseling and student mental health – Arkansas Catholic

Amy Owens (left), Counseling Director, and Eden Coker, Freshman Counselor and Transition Coordinator, spend time with Oliver, the therapy dog, in the Wellness Room at Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock on August 31.
Senior Lilli Brooks used her free time during her lunch break to visit therapy dog ​​Oliver at Mount St. Mary Academy's counselors office in Little Rock on August 31.

School programs, wellness room and therapy dog ​​contribute to the well-being of the school’s 475 teenagers

Posted: September 19, 2022

Chris Price

Freshman Annie Burkhead stops by the counselors desk during her lunch break to visit therapy dog ​​Oliver at Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock on Aug. 31.

In 10 years at Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock, Amy Owens, the school’s council director, said she’s witnessed a culture shift.

Meanwhile, she said the girls’ school has expanded its counseling service not only to help its approximately 475 students succeed in their studies, but also to learn the mental health skills they need to thrive in life. adolescence and later into adulthood.

“We’ve branched out in so many different ways,” said Owens, who was recognized this summer as Central Arkansas School Counselor Association’s Middle School Counselor of the Year. “We provide services for students who have learning differences, so we have a coordinator taking care of that now. We also now have a college counselor and a freshman and transition counselor.

“We are here to listen, to help,” she said. “How can our students be successful if they have a problem that prevents them from concentrating on their tasks at hand? »

“I worked in a public school for a long time before coming here. When I got here I realized it was a special place,” Owens said. “Everyone in this building cares about these children, and they feel safe to be here because of the love and respect they receive. It all lets the girls know that we care. them, which is the basis of everything.

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Mount St. Mary was founded by the Sisters of Mercy, and Owens credits the values ​​of the order as central to the school’s approach.

“I worked in a public school for a long time before coming here. When I came here I realized it was a special place,” she said. “Everyone in this building cares about these children, and they feel safe to be here because of the love and respect they receive. It all lets the girls know that we care. them, which is the basis of everything.

In recent years, Mount has made its counseling program a priority by adding professional positions, study programs and several features, including a designated wellness room, to focus on the mental health of its students.

Eden Coker, first-grade counselor and transition coordinator, said schools in Arkansas have an average of 450 students to one counselor and the recommended counselor-to-student ratio is 250-to-one. Mount’s ratio is around 158 to one.

“That low ratio is a huge advantage,” Coker said, “and it really makes a difference.”

Last year, Mount opened a designated wellness room in the Councillors’ office suite. With a cool color palette, soft dim lights, and an aquarium, the space offers students a calming place where they can temporarily escape to refocus.

“It started because of our connection with other Mercy schools and how they face challenges,” Owens said. “It’s a quiet space to defuse and use coping techniques for something that hasn’t reached a level that requires individual counseling. The nice thing about our particular space is that we can see inside from our offices, so if they have reached a level that requires our attention, we can intervene immediately.

First year focus

Mount St. Mary devotes a great deal of energy to helping its freshmen adjust to high school, and the counseling program has also become a major part of the school’s recruiting efforts.

“On each tour, Annie Cross, our Director of Enrollment Management, focuses on the counsellors, the wellness center and how important girls’ mental health is to us,” Owens said. “She says people leave here feeling good, and they do. That’s their goal in admissions, and that’s our goal while they’re here as students.

“We’re something they want all families to know about,” Coker said. “I think it helps us do what we do because students come here and they know our offices and they know how to reach us because they involve us in the admissions process and in orientation, and that’s a huge help.”

When first-year students arrived on campus, they were paired with upper-class mentors who help them year-round to ease their transition.

“I have daughters watching them,” Coker said. “Our freshmen might be more open to talking to 11th and 12th graders because they are peers. Some of their questions are easy, but if the mentors notice something a little heavier, they can say, “Hey, that girl is having a hard time. Then I can bring her in for a one-on-one meeting.

As part of their spring semester theology classes, each freshman participates in Prepare U, a national curriculum that covers mental and physical growth, personality development, behavior, family systems, bereavement, mental health, social media and technology, relationships and managing anxiety and stress.

“In lessons, they’re given a script, and then in a class discussion, they break down the ways they could have handled it,” Coker said. “They get to talk about the same things they’re going through, but they see it as someone else’s problems. They will often find the right advice in class, which will help them when faced with this problem. There’s a lot of self-reflection and affirmations to be your best.

“It works,” Owens said. “Students do surveys before and after the program and the data we get indicates that it is very beneficial.”

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Although not officially on staff, Oliver Owens keeps office hours at the counseling department three days a week. Oliver is Owen’s therapeutic goldendoodle. Between classes or during their lunch break, the girls will stop by the office to give him a little pet, but his presence is for a purpose.

“It’s very calming, and there have been countless animal studies that alleviate anxiety,” Owens said.

According to a 2014 study by University of Pennsylvania psychologists Melissa Hunt and Rachel Chizkov, therapy dogs “can reduce acute distress without compromising emotional processing or therapeutic mechanisms, and may actually improve outcomes at long term for some people.

After the first day of school, Coker interviewed the freshman to ask how his day had been. A young woman said she was really nervous, but “Oliver came up to me in the hallway, leaned against me and told me it would be okay.”

Sometimes his work is more detailed. Owens said a female student was struggling to open up about the issues she was having, so she brought in Oliver to help encourage dialogue.

“She never really opened up before, but she got on the floor to pet Oliver,” she said. “He is so nice and helped her relax. Thirty minutes later, it was completely open. It helps the girls to talk, and it helps us to help them.


Kelly Lasseigne, a member of Christ the King Church in Little Rock, has two daughters at Mount, freshman Lauren and senior Peyton, who is on the autism spectrum. Although her mother said Peyton was a high achiever and had always been an A-level student, she sometimes struggled with sensory issues as well as social communication and interactions. She said Mount’s advisers – and Oliver – made all the difference in her daughter’s ability to succeed.

“Peyton just skyrocketed,” Lasseigne said. “The counseling program alone is worth the price of tuition.”

For much of her daughter’s childhood, when Peyton was overwhelmed, she lacked the proper coping mechanisms and went into “a total meltdown,” Lasseigne said. “Now when she starts to feel too fast, she can go to the counselors office, get herself out of the situation and in five minutes she is calm. She could never have done this before.

“As a parent, not having this worry and stress is unbelievable. I can’t even put it into words. I don’t even know how to tell them. I want to cry because I’m so grateful. They have a fantastic program, but when it comes to life, it’s so important, it’s such a blessing.

Senior Olivia Bush said she had a tough end to her junior year, and Owens was able to help her through her struggles.

“Miss Owens was like me,” Bush said. “I could come to her with absolutely anything and I had the comfort of feeling that she wouldn’t tell anyone.”

Now Bush checks with the council suite every day whether she has a problem at hand or not.

‘Miss Owens and Miss Coker are really uplifting and always positive, and you can go to either at any time,’ she said. “They are always welcoming and open, and Oliver is amazing too. It can transform your day at any time. He will just cuddle and comfort you.

“It’s a really amazing thing that they have this here,” she said. “I know a lot of schools don’t have it. If you’re having a bad day or just need a minute, I know a lot of schools don’t have things in place where you can just calm down and reset when you need to.

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