After Moffat County High School student Chad Cookston died last year in a four-wheeler accident, youth in Craig were stunned and grief-stricken.
"The students didn't feel they had enough support to talk about Chad's death," said Tom St. Louis, MCHS student counselor and faculty advisor. "Many of them came to me and said it was important for them to share their grief with their peers. We had no formal way for them to do that. When I discovered there was such a need for a program like this, I set up the training for peer counselors."
Nicole Morley, a junior, volunteered to take the reins as student coordinator for the program. "The idea was to have a teen support center where people can come and talk to other teens who understand because we go through the same things," Morley said.
The training phase was completed last month, and now the peer counselors are beginning to publicize the service to MCHS teens, especially those who have a pressing problem they need help solving.
According to Morley, peer counselors are trained to deal with a variety of issues, including the top three concerns of teens today self-image, stress, and relationships.
"Self-mutilation cutting themselves, putting pins through their arms and anorexia are big problems related to self-image," Morley said. "There's a lot of stress on teens, like how to manage our time, what sports to take, homework, and a lot of pressure from parents and coaches. Relationships are always on people's minds friends, teachers, parents, crushes on people, all kinds of relationships we need to talk about."
According to St. Louis, the program had a lot of support from Craig Middle School Counselor Kathy Bockelman, who started teaching a class on peer counseling at CMS eight years ago.
Bockelman agreed with Morley about the top concerns of teens, and added depression and peer pressure to the list. She said the idea to start a peer counseling group at the high school originated with students.
"A lot of kids now in high school were in my eighth grade class," she explained.
To be eligible to take Bockelman's middle school elective, students need to first fill out an application. "I look for kids who care about others, kids with a little maturity who have positive attitudes and who look for solutions," Bockelman said. "In the class, we talk about self-esteem, their own and how to raise others, how to set realistic goals, how to develop communication skills, how to be assertive, how not to give advice, and how to deal with conflict resolution. The skills they learn in class help outside of school, too."
St. Louis said there are about 23 committed students out of the 30 peer counselors who have been trained at the high school this year. The students sign a contract, and their training covers confidentiality, role-playing and learning how to identify a crisis.
"I don't expect them to handle a potential suicide," St. Louis said. "Their purpose is not to take the load off of us counselors, but more to give the kids a choice of who they want to talk to about their problems."
According to both St. Louis and Morley, peer counselors are a support group without a home. St. Louis said they are looking for a room in the school to use for confidential counseling when needed.
"We don't have a permanent place to meet with other students right now," Morley said. "We have different people on call and then, if somebody needs to talk, we have to go find some place. We wanted to use the teacher's reading room, but the principal won't let us have that. And we would like to be open after school, too, in case anybody needed help then."
Morley, who wants to be a psychologist after she graduates, said managing the project takes a lot of her time. "But I want to do this because I feel like I'm doing something worthwhile," she said. "It's really hard for teens to find things to do in Craig, and I'd like to somehow make this into a center where teens could go all the time."
She said her vision would take funding and somebody from the community who is dedicated to helping teens. She sees a center, a building off-campus, staffed by an adult. A coke machine, ping-pong tables, a jukebox, a place to dance, and a space for counseling. "But mostly, a good place for peer counseling and information about things teens want to know about, like suicide, safe sex, relationships or a healthy image," she said.
"The most important thing about it is that it's a place where teens can get help and not be judged," Morley added.